Rahway River flood study faces more roadblocks

The Rahway River poured over its banks during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 n Springfield. The storm and its effects, including millions of dollars in damage, spurred local officials to renew and heighten efforts to devise a flood mitigation plan for the waterway. The latest effort has been stalled by the Army Corps of Engineers’ rejection of the most recent plan.

Ongoing work to mitigate flooding in municipalities along the Rahway River has hit yet another dam, forcing proponents to reach out to politicians and government agencies in an attempt to get the plan moving again.

On Oct. 4, mayors from communities along the Rahway River, as well as county officials, met with officials from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Trenton to discuss the status of the Rahway River Flood Mitigation Plan. According to former Cranford Mayor Dan Aschenbach, who serves as spokesman for the Mayors Council Rahway River Watershed Flood Control, 19 different alternatives have been evaluated since 2013 and several additional options are now under consideration, all in an attempt to stem the flooding from the Rahway River during severe weather conditions.

The Rahway River flows through Union, Essex and Middlesex counties. Surrounding communities, especially Cranford and Springfield, have suffered severe, widespread flooding on numerous occasions in recent decades — including during Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999 and Tropical Storm Irene in 2011— displacing residents and causing more than $100 million in property damage.

“All elected officials from the impacted towns, the counties, and the federal and state legislative delegations are united that no action is not an option and are going to keep pressing to find a solution that both the state of New Jersey and the federal agencies can support and help fund,” Aschenbach wrote in an Oct. 5 press release.

The project could cost up to $60 million; funding for a federal-state project would be 65 percent from the federal government, 25 percent from the state and 10 percent from local support. Previously supported plans called for 30 inches of pipes at the spillway at Orange Reservoir in the South Mountain Reservation and channel improvements in Cranford. The most current plans, as of June, were a storage project at the Orange Reservoir; a renovation of the Campbell’s Mill Pond dam; changing the spillway at Lenape Park; the channelization of 1.5 to 2 miles in Cranford; and house-liftings and acquisitions in Rahway.

The three most recent stumbling blocks concern the study’s duration, a perceived lack of buy-in from surrounding communities and its use of forecasts in a proposed plan. On Sept. 27, the USACE recommended canceling the study and gave affected towns one week to reach consensus and support just one plan to follow. Following outcry from the public and government officials, the NJDEP announced that the state’s chief resiliency officer, Dave Rosenblatt, has been assigned to work with the two counties and mayors from affected communities to arrive at an alternative that can be presented back to the USACE quickly, Aschenbach said in an Oct. 11 statement he sent to the Mayors Council and to the Union County LocalSource.

“After review of the 19 alternatives, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has asked the local communities to review the options and develop a consensus on the alternative that has the strongest cost-benefit ratio,” Aschenbach told the LocalSource on Oct. 13, explaining that Rosenblatt is working with the communities of Millburn, Maplewood, Springfield, Union, Kenilworth, Cranford, Garwood and Rahway. “The mayors and Mayors Council Rahway River Watershed Flood Control will be meeting at the end of October and then with Essex and Union counties before reporting back to the state.”

In the duration argument for ceasing the study, USACE made the case that it wants to end the study based on federal law requirements that studies be completed within three years; twice before the study timetable has been extended.

“This will be the third time we have run up against this and the prior two times the Rahway River Flood Mitigation Plan was ended, it got an exemption,” Aschenbach told the LocalSource. “No plan is no option, because no option means the same damages experienced during Irene.”

The USACE also cited concerns that plans do not have buy-in from all affected communities.
“To date, USACE and the NJDEP have spent over $6.3 million and analyzed 19 alternatives and variations for over 17 years of study,” USACE Major Gen. Jeffrey Milhorn wrote in an August letter to NJDEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe, clarifying that the “19 alternatives” mentioned do not include numerous measures and alternatives evaluated and screened out earlier in the study. “The locally imposed constraints and lack of acceptance of the alternatives proposed has severely limited the scope of our solutions.”

Aschenbach pointed out that the study has not been going on for more than 17 years; while the study was authorized approximately 17 years ago, federal work only began in 2013.

“Many of us have complained about the length of the U.S. Army Corps process. It is true they have spent $6.3 million over the past five years and have looked at 19 different options and several benefit-cost ratios that could permit federal funding. They are the professionals at this and we have pushed the process as hard as possible. But no approved option is not an option,” Aschenbach said Oct. 11. “Now the process is in local hands and we need to get to a consensus of something that can achieve meaningful flood mitigation. Soon.”

A main source of contention among the communities was the proposed plan to build a dam in the South Mountain Reservation, which opponents argued would irreversibly damage the wildlife reserve, damaging the flora and habitats for area fauna.

Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca addressed this divide at the Oct. 1 Maplewood Township Committee meeting.
“We either have to take it or leave it as far as a proposal to build some sort of dam up in the reservation to deal with the flooding on the West Branch of the Rahway River,” DeLuca said. “Opposition has been throughout this whole process that while we do recognize the severity of the flooding downstream, particularly in Union, Springfield and Cranford, that we can’t sacrifice the reservation for this. That’s what I’ve been arguing; that’s what the mayor of Millburn has been arguing.”

DeLuca stressed that there needs to be a two-stage solution that increases water-holding capacity in the reservation without causing damage, as well as channelization improvements downstream.
“If you do one without the other, it doesn’t really help. This has the potential that either nothing could happen or something could happen that we might not want,” DeLuca said. “This could really end up splitting Union and Essex County towns, too, which would be a disappointment because we were working together on looking at alternatives, but clearly we cannot have any kind of significant dam up in the reservation.”

As for the use of forecasts, the Rahway River Flood Mitigation Plan had a recommended plan that reached consensus in 2017, but the USACE raised a new policy about using forecasts, which required the process to go back to the drawing board. The result was the current plan, which is now still in limbo due to the USACE’s concerns regarding study duration and community buy-in.

As Milhorn explained in the August letter, “Due to the risks of forecast-based operations in a flashy, urban watershed coupled with the high consequences of failure, the Corps determined that it will not support forecast-based operation of the Orange Reservoir Dam.”

Community response to the possible cessation of flood mitigation plans along the Rahway River has been overwhelming.
In late September, the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders sent a letter to McCabe, urging her to formally reject the USACE’s proposal to end the study.

“After 20 years of genuine progress, USACE has halted the study for no discernible reason. We strongly urge the Army Corps of Engineers to resume work on this critical matter of public safety and economic security for communities throughout our region,” Union Freeholder Chairwoman Bette Jane Kowalski said in a September statement, criticizing USACE’s assertion that local communities are in disagreement regarding solutions. “In fact, the opposite is true. Union County has worked cooperatively all along with Essex County and the mayors whose communities lie within the Rahway River Basin, and we achieve consensus on a plan developed by USACE.”

Kowalski called USACE’s decision to recommend canceling the study both “arbitrary” and “capricious.” She made clear that no action is not an option.

“We strongly believe that taking no action, as proposed by USACE, is an unacceptable outcome of the feasibility study process,” Kowalski wrote to Commissioner McCabe. “Union County residents and tens of thousands of people throughout the region are counting on us, and we must fulfill our obligation to protect life and property, among the most basic responsibilities of our government to the people we serve.”

Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. also sent a letter to McCabe urging NJDEP to reject USACE’s recommendation to end the study.

“Continued study is needed to develop an acceptable plan of action to address flooding along the Rahway River in Essex and Union counties. Working in concert with our partners in Union County and a coalition of affected municipalities along the river, we believe the USACE decision is premature, especially since there are several viable options that have not been explored,” DiVincenzo wrote to McCabe. “Despite some earlier proposals being deemed unacceptable to Essex County, we have identified several alternative options that would be just as effective to control flooding and reached a consensus among the coalition to study these more thoroughly.

“Giving us just one week to come to a decision is unrealistic given the complexity of the problem and destines our communities to experiencing further damage after future storms,” he continued.

McCabe agreed that one week was not nearly enough time for the towns to come to consensus and she urged USACE to give the region more time in an Oct. 2 letter to Milhorn.

“While we understand that the Corps cannot justify significant additional expenditure of federal funds for this project if there is no prospect that any of the viable alternatives will be accepted by the local jurisdictions, the DEP has deep concerns for the residents and business owners along the Rahway who continue to face the very serious threat of chronic flooding,” McCabe wrote. “It is with concern for these New Jersey residents in mind that we strongly urge the Corps to allow the local jurisdictions a reasonable additional amount of time to come to agreement on a solution that meets the Corps’ engineering and cost-benefit standards.”

In an Oct. 3 letter, U.S. Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, and U.S. Congressmen Tom Malinowski and Donald Payne Jr. criticized USACE for trying to terminate the study — especially is such a condensed time frame.

“This is an insufficient timeframe for such a decision and we are troubled that the Army Corps is presenting these options as an ultimatum rather than committing to exploring additional options,” they wrote, stressing how much damage Rahway River flooding has caused. “The need to protect these communities is evident and the urgency with which to do so is palpable. We believe that the Army Corps must not walk away from their responsibility in finding an acceptable solution, and therefore, strongly request more time for the study to continue.”

Aschenbach stated several times to the Chronicle that “no option is not an option.”

“It is a serious public safety concern which has to be addressed,” Aschenbach told the Chronicle. “The state has recognized this with the dedication of the state’s resiliency officer to come to terms with an alternative that is acceptable. Much has been accomplished in the evaluation of alternatives of the complicated engineering and environmental issue but it is now time to get to a plan and for it be implemented.”