UNION, NJ — Late last week Democrat U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, along with the mayors of towns along the Rahway River, announced the federal government has committed $1 million towards the completion of a stalled study needed to move flood mitigation efforts along.
At the press conference held Feb. 6 at Union council chambers, mayors of towns that have endured catastrophic flooding over the years gathered with other political dignitaries to praise Menendez for putting flood relief efforts at the top his priority list since last September.
Menendez applauded the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to prioritize efforts to mitigate flooding along the Rahway River, which flows through Union, Essex and Middlesex counties.
“This critically needed funding will help us complete the necessary studies and work on implementation that will lead to channel improvements, dry flood proofing, wet flood proofing and other flood mitigation measures,” said the senator, who elaborated on the toll flooding has taken on those living adjacent to the river.
“Flooding along the Rahway River has damaged houses, businesses, roads and municipal facilities,” said the senator, pointing out that after 17 years of fighting for funding “we have a chance to take the next step to protect the area and restore the river basin.”
Menendez explained that flooding in the Rahway River basin is nothing new. In fact, he pointed out 24 communities within the basin area have endured major flooding in 1938, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1992, 1999, and 2011. In 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene hit, more than 3,000 homes and businesses were affected by flooding, causing more than $100 million in damage.
“It’s not just about numbers, its about the people impacted,” the senator said.
Last September the Mayors Council on Rahway River Watershed Flood Control, comprised of 11 mayors from towns along the flood ravaged Rahway River, traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with Menendez and ask for his help. Armed with petitions and a strong resolve to get the help they needed, the nine mayors attending went home knowing they had the support of the United States senator.
Menendez then sent a bipartisan letter to the Army Corps in December, along with support from Democrat Sen. Cory Booker, Democrat Congressman Donald Payne Jr. and Republican Congressman Leonard Lance.
While not present at the event, Lance released a statement, pledging his continued help and the resources needed to complete the study.
“This is certainly welcome news for the municipalities that face chronic flooding issues from the Rahway River. While this is a step in the right direction, we will continue to promote this vital project to achieve the resources needed to complete the study. Thousands of residences and businesses as well as vital infrastructure must be protected,” said the congressman, who represents several of the affected towns. He also vowed continued support.
“We will continue to fight for these New Jersey municipalities. This project has great merit, a plan and the support of the community. It’s time to finalize the details and give the residents and businesses of these towns the protection they need,” Lance noted in his release.
The stumbling block over the last 12 years has been finding the funding needed to kick start a flood-prevention effort.
Although towns like Cranford managed to complete some flood mitigation locally, eventually it became clear that the issue of flooding had to be tackled regionally, or upstream. The fact the Army Corps came up with 10 alternative flood mitigation projects was encouraging, but then funding was abruptly cut off for 2014, leaving the study in limbo.
More than a year ago at a town hall meeting in Cranford, after the Army Corps of Engineers narrowed down the ten alternatives to two, they informed residents living in towns along the Rahway River they did not have enough money to complete the study and there was no commitment or allocation from President Barack Obama in the 2015 budget.
This final part of the study is critical because unless a proposed flood project shows the right benefit-to-cost ratio, obtaining federal funding would be out of the question.
In 2002 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection signed a Feasibility Cost Sharing Agreement, but 12 years down the road the study continued to stall due to lack of funding.
With Menendez and other representatives stepping in to fight for funding, the Army Corps committed $500,000 in immediate funding while another $500,000 was allocated in Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget. Now the Army Corps of Engineers can complete the study, but that is just one step in the process.
Menendez stressed funding the study was an important step towards relieving the flooding problems in the 82-mile flood basin, but he also warned that no project, regardless of the scope, will eliminate all flooding.
“A feasibility study is a flood risk management plan, not flood risk elimination. We can only reduce the severity of flooding,” said Menendez, adding physical improvements are only one part of what needs to be done.
“Zoning and other considerations locally have to be part of flood management,” the senator explained, pointing out that flood safety is a shared effort among communities.
Menendez did note that completion of the Rahway River Basin Feasibility Study will lead to “real solutions that will protect residents and their homes.”
Menendez also mentioned that as flooding mitigation efforts move from the study phase into the design of a project that will provide protection from flood waters, the federal government will continue to be there to help financially.
“We are committed in the long term to make that happen,” said the senator.
Menendez also praised the efforts of the Mayors’ Council on Rahway River Watershed Flood Control, co-founded by former Cranford Mayor Dan Aschenbach, who has worked since 1999 seeking flood relief for his community and all those along the Rahway River.
After Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, Aschenbach formed the Mayor’s Council and has led the group since. Union Mayor Manuel Figueiredo singled out Aschenbach, noting that while he is no longer a mayor, his efforts to see flood relief never ceased.
The Union mayor praised Aschenbach.
“Thank you for all you do,” he said. “You are behind all of the efforts.”
Aschenbach said that more than 500 homes would be out of the floodplain as a result of improvements made upstream and locally. He also explained that they hope to see the study completed by the end of the year, but there are concerns.
“There are standards. The New Jersey DEP has benefit-to-cost ratio requirements and we are almost there,” he said, pointing out “the engineering has to be right and it has to work.”
Menendez was confident they would get where they needed to be.
“I think we can get there,” he said.