House adopts measure to mitigate Rahway River flooding

File Photo
Numerous homes in Cranford saw water climb to their first floor during Irene in 2011.

UNION COUNTY, NJ — Efforts to abate flooding from the East Branch of the Rahway River are back on, following a Dec. 8 vote from Congress that approved funding for a renewal of the Rahway River flood abatement study. The bill, S1811, also called the “Water Resources Development Act of 2020,” contains provisions for several water-related studies and projects across the country.

The bill nullifies the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision last year to terminate the Rahway River Flood Risk Management Feasibility Study. Instead, it directs USACE to expedite the completion of the study and to stay engaged with local leaders to determine and carry out the work necessary to prevent further flooding.

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.

The flood abatement 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. Plans as of June 2019 called for a storage project at the Orange Reservoir; a renovation of the Campbell’s 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.

But the project hit a dam in September 2019 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommended canceling the study due to concerns regarding the study’s duration, the use of forecasts in a proposed plan and a perceived lack of buy-in from surrounding communities; surrounding communities, some for and some against the alternatives, include Millburn, Maplewood, Orange, Union, Springfield, Cranford, Kenilworth, Garwood and Rahway.

“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 2019 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.”

Back when USACE made its recommendation, however, former Cranford Mayor Dan Aschenbach, who serves as spokesperson for the Mayors Council Rahway River Watershed Flood Control, was quick to point out that the study had not been going on for 17 years; while the study was authorized approximately 18 years ago, federal work began only in 2013. The lengthy process has been frustrating for all parties involved.

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.

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.

Despite USACE’s misgivings, Bill S1811 makes the Rahway River Flood Risk Management Feasibility Study a priority again.

“The federal Water Resources Development Act is the federal authorization bill that directs the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers on its priorities,” Aschenbach told the newspaper on Dec. 17. “And the Rahway River flood risk management was included again as a national priority. The bill directs the U.S. Army Corps to find a flood risk management alternative that can be funded.”

Aschenbach specifically thanked U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, along with U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. and U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, for their work on ensuring that this issue was included in the bill.

“They have been fighting hard for the past few years to get this issue resolved,” Aschenbach said. “Congressman Malinowski and Sen. Booker were instrumental at getting the language used in the bill.”

For Malinowski, it was clear that the Rahway River flood study needed to be addressed in this bill.

“The Water Resources Development Act will modernize our nation’s water resources infrastructure, which will in turn help reduce flood damage and protect and restore our ecosystems,” Malinowski said in a press statement following the vote. “As a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and its Water Resources Subcommittee, I worked hard to ensure that the needs of communities like Cranford at risk of flooding from the Rahway River would be addressed, and I’m glad we were successful.”

In the lengthy bill, Section 336, which deals with the Rahway River flood abatement study, calls for the secretary of the Army to “nullify the determination of the North Atlantic Division of the Corps of Engineers that further activities to carry out the feasibility study for a project for flood risk management, Rahway, New Jersey, … is not warranted,” “identify an acceptable alternative to the project … that could receive federal support,” and “carry out and expedite the completion of, a feasibility study for the acceptable alternative.”

When asked for comment on Bill S1811, Bryan Purtell, of the Public Affairs Office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New England District, responded on Dec. 21 that USACE “does not comment on pending legislation.” This bill passed in the Senate and the House, but the House made changes during its approval on Dec. 8, requiring the bill to be sent back to the Senate. The WRDA, with its changes, was then included in HR133, also known as the “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021,” which the Senate passed Dec. 21.

“The legislation restarts a serious federal, state and local effort to find a plan that will mitigate flooding along the Rahway River,” said Aschenbach, echoing former Cranford Mayor Tom Hannen’s insistence that “no solution is not an option.” “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are the nation’s engineering experts, and getting to a solution to flooding requires their involvement.

“Since Irene, the Mayors Council Rahway River Watershed Flood Control — including Millburn, Maplewood, Orange, Union, Springfield, Cranford, Kenilworth, Garwood, Rahway, and Union County and Essex counties — with the state DEP and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had evaluated 17 different alternatives. A consensus had been reached on Alternative 4A by the communities and was recommended by the state DEP and the U.S. Army Corps New York Office. But the chief engineer held reservations on the storage plan,” he continued. “Upstream storage in Orange Reservoir is critical to lowering river elevation downstream prior to a major storm. The lower river elevation would then permit channelization projects downstream to offer a greater level of flood protection.

“Since the U.S. Army Corps ended its review, the Mayors Council Rahway River Watershed Flood Control with Union County and Essex County communities have developed a consensus plan, which will be presented to the U.S. Army Corps. A restart of the federal study allows a fresh look at a plan by the nation’s engineering experts,” Aschenbach concluded.

Aschenbach looks forward to the project regaining momentum and hopefully being completed.

“The next step is starting from a strong position since we have evaluated the various alternatives and can now work from there to reach consensus on a plan,” he said. “Meetings with the state DEP and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be held in early 2021 to identify the solution that can be recommended to Congress for funding. Climate change and resiliency require an urgency to get this done soon.”