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Problems with Repetitive Flooding Mean Recurring Losses for Inland New Jersey

Some Westwood and Hillsdale residents have called on the state to ask United Water -- which operates the Woodcliff Lake reservoir -- to start releasing water in advance of big storms to prevent the brook from being overwhelmed and overflowing its banks. Birkner agrees that that may help.

His biggest request, however, is that the Department of Environmental Protection follow one of the recommendations of a 2011 engineering study commissioned by the borough and maintain a year-round limit of 91 feet of water in the reservoir. That would allow for a four-foot buffer during the rainy summer months, potentially reducing the frequency and amount of flood discharge into the brook when the lake reaches capacity and keeping the brook from overflowing its banks as a result of freak storms.

After the study came out, Birkner sent multiple letters to the state DEP, asking officials to take the recommendations into consideration. For a long time, he said his pleas mostly went unanswered.

“It is now at the point beyond frustrating that your office continues to ignore the plight of our residents that have been the victims of severe and repetitive losses due to flooding,” he wrote in January. “Quite frankly, I find the lack of response from the NJDEP to be unacceptable.”

A meeting he organized last September to discuss the issue with various stakeholders, including Hackensack Riverkeeper and United Water was also cancelled after the DEP backed out, citing active litigation.

He eventually was able to arrange a private meeting with state officials, but was not allowed to discuss the issue of flooding. The meeting was not particularly helpful, he said.

After three years, he finally got a written response.

“Addressing flooding is a top priority of Governor Christie and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Martin,” wrote Deputy Commissioner Michele Siekerka, in a letter dated April 28.

But referencing the findings of the Passaic River Basin Flood Advisory Commission, she said that the amount of time it takes for water to drain means that attempting to lower water levels in advance of a storm wouldn't have any measurable effect on flood reduction. In other words, given the size of the reservoir, if it rains enough to cause flooding, it’s nearly impossible to release enough water in the days before a storm to make a meaningful difference. Plus, she said the DEP lacks the legal authority to require a private utility operator to do so.

Lower Water Levels

As for the argument that the reservoir owner should preemptively keep water levels below capacity, Siekerka wrote that "New Jersey reservoirs are the source of water for millions of New Jersey residents and businesses. In many cases, there is not a significant abundance of 'surplus' water available to reduce storage and still meet the region's water supply needs," she continued, adding that "the inability to correctly predict precipitation events sufficiently ahead of time” makes New Jersey water-supply reservoirs “poor candidates for flood mitigation."

That viewpoint is echoed by John Miller, legislative committee chair with the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management and one of seven members of the Passaic Basin Commission. While he acknowledges that altering the operation of the floodgates could affect the amount of time that residents and first responders have to prepare for advancing floodwaters, he said it most likely won’t in the end impact whether the flooding occurs. Given a long history of unpredictable weather patterns, he also worries that officials might start out trying to prevent a flood but end up causing a drought.

“There’s great uncertainty on the track of a storm and how much rain’s going to happen,” he said. “You have projections, but they’re not certain. And especially if you have a water supply reservoir, making that choice of relieving enough water to make a difference in a flood event, and then not getting that rainfall to refill that reservoir, it could be a very critical situation.”

Managing a reservoir, he added, is a difficult and often thankless job.

“It’s kind of like the Monday morning quarterback,” he said. “You’re going to be questioning, well should they have released it earlier or maybe not enough? Or now what are we going to do with this thing that’s supposed to be our backup water supply and it’s not available now? And the storm didn’t come or did come . . . It gets really tricky.”

Eliminating Snags

As for Mayor Birkner’s suggestion that more emphasis be placed on clearing snags from the brook, Miller says that might help in some instances, such as when debris is blocking a culvert or preventing water from flowing under a bridge. But in general, while it sounds good, it usually won’t increase much of the capacity. During a flood, he said, “the channel proper carries a smaller fraction of the floodwater than the floodplain,” the area adjacent to the banks of the river.

Instead, Miller said the focus needs to remain on downstream flood management practices, beginning with changing development regulations to prevent homes from being built in high-risk areas.

“New Jersey’s flood problem is not going to be addressed in our lifetime. We will make incremental improvements in our vulnerability,” he said, adding that it appears the state is making progress.

“Risk is consequence times probability, and the probability is increasing with climate change and sea -evel rise. By buying out homes, by elevating homes, by doing these other mitigation techniques, we’re starting to buy down some of that risk.”

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