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Conflicting Priorities Slow Efforts to Save NJ Towns From Floods

Despite promises after each ‘storm of the century,’ Millstone, Passaic basins still seek funding, plans for flood prevention.

Credit: David Robinson
Main Street in Manville, August 28, 2011, just as the nearby Millstone River crested.

In a state subject to recurring floods in many places, attempts to solve local or regional problems have left some officials groping for a more comprehensive approach.

When the Christie administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to cooperate on a new $2.4 million study of flood prevention in the Passaic River Basin, they raised hopes in hard-hit towns in that area.

A bit to the south, though, the Passaic announcement caused consternation along the Millstone River. That’s because residents of Manville and flood-prone areas upstream were equally encouraged in 2002, when the Corps agreed on a similar study of their area. But a decade later, that study is creeping along, waiting for the promised funding, while attention turns elsewhere.

Under the Passaic River initiative, the Corps would join the state Department of Environmental Protection to “re-evaluate” previous studies and data, according to Corps spokesman Ken Wells. That was not on the Corps’ priority list, “it’s in response to Gov. Christie,” he said.

The Millstone venture committed the state and the Corps to decide among alternatives, including levees and floodwalls, elevating or removing homes and deepening the channel. Any of those options would be expensive, and a choice hinges in part on what the study finds about the causes of increased flooding.

Like its Passaic counterpart, the state and federal government agreed to split the $6.8 million cost of the Millstone study. But only $2.2 million has actually been spent, according to Jim Gentile, the project manager for the Corps.

Of an announced $24 million budget for the Corps’ New Jersey projects in the current fiscal year, Congress directed only $50,000 to the Millstone work. That was an improvement from FY 2011, when no money was appropriated. Little or no federal money means little or no state money. Under the agreement authorizing the study, New Jersey is only required to put up money to match federal appropriations, according to Corps officials.

“That study is sitting half-finished on the Corps’ desk, waiting for $4 million to be invested,” said Angelo Corradino, the frustrated mayor of Manville.

Located on the point where the Millstone empties into the Raritan, with a tributary stream snaking through the south side of town, Corradino’s borough turns into a virtual island, complete with lagoons, during the heaviest storms.

Flood-Prone Spots Seek Solutions

Legislators from the 16th District, which covers parts of Somerset and Hunterdon counties, have focused on the problem, but point out that Manville is not the only flood-prone spot going begging for help. They filed bills that would require the governor to appoint a task force within 30 days to address flooding concerns along the Millstone, Raritan and Delaware rivers.

Many New Jersey communities have suffered recurring floods, some localized and some part of larger problems, said Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset). The federal and state governments need some framework beyond sending money to the squeakiest wheel, he said.

That legislative initiative faces some hurdles, not least that the sponsors acknowledge Passaic River flooding is a serious matter. It certainly has claimed headlines in recent years, with Gov. Chris Christie appointing a commission in April 2010 to address chronic problems.

“The Passaic Basin has gotten quite specific attention from Governor Christie because you’re seeing people needing to be rescued from flooding there just about every year,” said DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese. “Everything can’t be a priority at the same time.”

But even as they recognize the problems in the affected Passaic basin towns, the Millstone area legislators expressed dismay that after years of “storms of the century,” the federal and state response remains unsystematic, ad hoc.

“I have a vacation home at the Shore,” Ciattarelli said. “They spent $25 million replenishing the beaches around Surf City, and then four months later the Nor’easter came along and wiped it all out.”

Ciattarelli’s rough figure included work in Atlantic City and Ventnor, as well as a 2007 project halted when unexploded ordinance was found in sand being pumped on-shore. The Corps projects there took years to plan and get through Congress, but were needed because maintaining the beaches is vital to New Jersey’s economy, Ragonese said.

“Yes, we need beaches, but surely if they can find $25 million for sand that gets washed away they can find money to protect these people’s homes” along the Millstone and other rivers, Ciattarelli said.

‘Global Warming Preparedness’

At a November conference sponsored by Rutgers University and the Public Service Enterprise Group in November, speakers and state officials said data from the presentations on flooding and beach erosion was going into a “global warming preparedness” report to be released this spring by the DEP.

But recent contacts with organizers produced no clear picture of where that stands. The DEP is working with researchers from the City University of New York and other institutions, Ragonese said. But “it’s more of an assessment of vulnerabilities” than an action plan, he said. The agency still expects to release it sometime this year, he said.

Even in its own region, flooding along the Millstone seldom claims top billing. During the dramatic flooding from Hurricane Floyd in 1999, when central Manville was entirely cut off, news helicopters hovered over Bound Brook, diagonally across the Raritan. There, floodwaters raced through the low-lying downtown, where two people drowned and a fire burned.

Floyd spurred action on the $430 million Green Brook Flood Control Project, a huge network of dams, levees, floodgates, drainage basins and other features to protect Bound Brook and nearby communities.

Local officials credit the work completed so far with significantly reducing flood levels during Hurricane Irene last year. But the legislators pointed out that the work only addresses one stretch of the Raritan.

The Green Brook project was broached after Tropical Storm Doria, which killed three in 1971, and a 1973 flash flood that killed six, including motorists on Route 22, said Rutgers’ David Robinson, the state climatologist. Residents of other flood-prone areas who expect similar relief should also expect a long wait, he said.

“There are some options, like levees or (property) buyouts, but they are very expensive,” he said.

Ironically, the increased frequency of major floods in New Jersey does not necessarily bolster the political argument for flood-protection spending. Among national Republicans, it has become an article of faith that global warming does not exist and humans are not causing it.

In proposing the wider state flood task force, Ciattarelli said the cause is less important than the effect. “I don’t know care whether the cause is global warming, over-development, more runoff,” he said. “The problem is real and we have to do something to get help to these people.”

NJ Getting Wetter, Warmer

The experts agree there is one major cause for bigger and more frequent floods. “Development may have had some effect, but rainfall has been the major factor,” said Robert Schopp, surface water specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s hydrological office in West Trenton.

“It’s primarily rain,” Robinson agreed. “New Jersey is getting warmer. New Jersey is getting wetter. It’s not as though the Raritan Basin suddenly got developed in the past 30 years.”

Eight of the 50 highest rainfalls recorded in New Jersey have happened since 2002, he said.

On the Millstone, the last 20 years witnessed six of the top 10 floods recorded at Blackwells Mills, with a low-lying crossing over the Millstone and the Delaware and Raritan Canal between Hillsborough and Franklin Township.

During the same period, the Raritan has reached five of its top 10 crests at Manville. The records only go back 90 years, but in that time, no other decade saw more than one, he said.

At the November conference, Robinson presented a series of photos of the same intersection on Manville’s JFK Boulevard, showing the street sign almost submerged by Floyd in September 1999, storms in April 2007 and March 2010, and Hurricane Irene last August.

Irene brought the highest flooding, but Robinson said the two spring storms are more revealing because the rainfall totals were unseasonably high. The April 2007 storm was the “wettest” from December through June, he said.

Homeowners Await Help

In the meantime, Manville redeveloped the northern end of its business district, with fill raising the new stores above previous flood levels. Somerset County built a new causeway across the Raritan, but not above recent flood levels. And some residents were able to take advantage of flood buyouts.

But the offers have not kept up with demand. After Floyd, the federal government purchased 38 homes out of 500 applications. When Irene flooded 1,200 local homes, the state offered buyouts to 19 of 400 applicants.

Rob Skiranski was among those who bought a house in the borough’s quiet Lost Valley neighborhood, separated from the business district by a rail line, after Floyd. At the time, he thought the hurricane was as advertised, the basin’s 100-year storm. But since then, “I’ve been flooded three times,” he said. “I applied for a buyout, but I’m far from the top of the list.”

From a municipal perspective, buyouts have a pronounced downside, a loss of tax rateables. With more buyouts, Corradino lamented, “Manville could become a ghost town.” Still, more needs to be done to help those who are hanging on, he said.

“When I moved into Lost Valley 35 years ago, I didn’t have a flooding problem,” said former Manville Councilwoman Kathryn Quick, deputy clerk for the Somerset County freeholders. Over the past 15 years, though, she’s been flooded regularly, to the point where half her foundation was washed away.

Homeowners who are stuck without buyouts and little chance to sell on the market face another issue since insurance only covered $72,000 of her $110,000 repair bill, Quick said. “We need to look for long-term solutions, but we also need to find ways to help these people now,” said Frank Jurewicz, chairman of the Millstone and Raritan Rivers Flood Control Commission, formed by nine local towns this year.

The new task force could be a way to re-engage the Corps, but governments at all levels should be reaching out to all parties and looking at a range of measures, he said.

Corps officials said their hands are tied until they get enough money to finish the study, and any recommendation likely would demand much more funding to build. But insofar as a task force could raise the profile of flood-mitigation ideas along the Millstone and the other rivers, “it can only be a good thing,” Wells said.

The DEP reacted cautiously. Ragonese said the department must review the two task force bills, A3077 sponsored by Ciattarelli and Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-Hunterdon) and S2080, sponsored by Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset). Both were referred to committee.

During three decades reporting in New Jersey, Joe Tyrrell has covered everything from Avon to Zarephath, with a particular emphasis on politics and government, the environment and agriculture. He founded the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which unites civic groups, citizens and journalists to promote transparency and ethics.

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