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Opinion: Thinking Smaller for more Effective Flood Protection

We plan megaprojects for extreme floods, but NJ residents suffer while they wait for government to take action beyond the blueprints

Daniel J. Van Abs
Daniel J. Van Abs

New Jersey was fortunate in 2015 in experiencing no major floods. We have a long history of devastating floods, going back to the 1800s when our total population was less than 1 million people. Major river floods come with depressing regularity, including Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, Hurricane Floyd, and many other large storms just in the past thirty years. While Hurricane Sandy is not remembered for its rains, it did dump over a foot of rain in South Jersey. We now have nearly 9 million people, too many of whom are in flood-prone locations.

Major storms create demands for action. Historically, the most common response was to involve the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to devise an all-encompassing solution. The hope is that the federal government (other taxpayers) will pay much of the cost instead of New Jersey (our taxpayers). We have seen this reaction regarding the Delaware, Passaic, Raritan, Rahway, and Elizabeth rivers, and with repetitive beach renourishment and engineered dune building along the coast.

What is notable in this litany of projects is that the largest ones (Tocks Island Dam on the Delaware and the Passaic River flood-control tunnel) have never been built. Tocks Island was eventually cancelled by Congress. I suspect that most people today are not even aware that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) selected the mult-billion dollar Passaic River flood-control tunnel as the preferred project in 1984, over 30 years ago. I remember looking at all the flooding the day after that April 1984 storm, and then being frustrated with the single-minded focus on a mega-project instead of immediate steps to reduce flood risks. In 2016 yet another Corps of Engineers report is anticipated on the Passaic River flooding issue

A major problem is that too often the focus is on the catastrophic floods, which have the highest costs per event. However, most flood damages over time are in areas that flood frequently, the areas of repetitive losses where buildings are damaged and restored over and over, as noted in a 2014 NJ Spotlight article.

A second problem is our constant hope that someone else will cover most or all of the project costs. While the Passaic Flood Commission 2011 report recommended nonstructural approaches (for example, voluntary buyouts) and the current administration has moved forward with buyouts in some locations, these state government efforts rely heavily on federal funds. In many frequently flooded areas, people have limited recourse because the state and federal agencies too often are focused on megaprojects addressing the largest floods. The suffering that results is harmful to both those flooded and the state as a whole.

A shift in thinking is needed. Multibillion dollar projects such as the Passaic River flood-control tunnel are unlikely to be funded anytime soon, and construction would take several decades even if Congress provided continual funding. Anyone looking at the debt levels of New Jersey and the federal government must conclude that new funds for megaprojects will be extremely rare. The congressional response to Hurricane Sandy repairs shows us just how bad things must be before they open the federal wallet for megaprojects. We should be willing to admit that without federal funding, New Jersey’s ability to address Hurricane Sandy losses would have been pathetic. In addition, we should recognize that even the megaprojects cannot eliminate all flood damages.

It is the smaller projects that have made headway, such as focused initiatives in Bound Brook and Elizabeth, and the recent buyouts in a number of municipalities affected by frequent river and storm-surge floods. Even where structural projects have been implemented, however, they often have taken many years and often decades, and rely on highly uncertain federal funds.

New Jersey needs to refocus on actions that reduce the ongoing suffering without reliance on uncertain megaprojects, emphasizing incremental progress using a wide combination of funding sources and implementation methods. We need to recognize that the potential for flooding has been increasing in recent decades and will increase in the future. We should focus on the following:

  • Living with rivers: Flood damages occur because of development in risky places. We must realize that floods are a natural function of rivers, and provide room for flooding to happen. The Netherlands is implementing this concept under their Room for Rivers program. We must acknowledge the reality of flood risks. Our zoning and development controls at all government levels should incorporate this concept.

  • More buyouts: The highest-risk areas flood time and again. They impose costs on the federal, state, and local level, and devastate households. Rather than waiting for major projects (perhaps forever) or for the next flood, it makes sense to remove these properties through voluntary, mutually beneficial programs. One major issue has always been the ability of owners to get sufficient value -- we should consider sharing with them the financial benefits to society, so that they can purchase equivalent homes in flood-free areas. Municipal concerns about tax revenues, where valid, should be addressed separately, and not allowed to block buyouts.

  • Mitigation: Flood damages can be gradually be reduced, especially for the smaller storms, through building retrofits, landscaping, and “green infrastructure” stormwater systems. Again, our focus on the largest storms blinds us to what can be accomplished through better stormwater management and flood proofing of existing buildings.

  • Redevelopment control: Many commercial, office, and high-density residential properties in urban areas are redeveloped each year. Rather than assuming these properties will be safeguarded by future flood projects, we should require better designs, parking areas, and stormwater systems that substantially or totally eliminate future flood damages.

  • Basin agencies: Our state and federal agencies all have many priorities. Reducing flood damages requires a focused, long-term program with dedicated funding. Nationally, regional agencies with specific missions have proven effective where larger agencies tend to fail because they simply can’t focus on one priority for decades. We can use the Delaware River Basin Commission, which already exists for such purposes. We should consider something similar in the Passaic and Raritan River basins, with clear mandates.

  • Abandon the fantasy of regulating water-supply reservoirs: Our reservoirs were built for one purpose -- water supply -- and will be hard-pressed to meet that obligation during a repeat of the 1960s drought. They are not designed or suitable for flood control. People often ask the impossible of these reservoirs, not realizing that they can’t effectively serve this role.

  • Focused solutions: In some cases, the nature of flood risks, local conditions, and development density make a specific, subregional structural or nonstructural project both appropriate and feasible. We should do these projects now even if they make some future megaproject somewhat less feasible.

  • New Jersey leading the way: We should recognize that federal largess is largely a thing of the past, and that we must do what makes sense without expectations that Uncle Sugar will help. Where federal funds are available, certainly we should use them, but our state must take care of itself regardless. Our reputation, society, and economy are damaged every time a flood hits the headlines, showing that we just haven’t made enough progress to solve our problems.

New Jersey needs to rethink its approach to flood damages so that in 30 years we have mostly solved our problems, and aren’t still waiting for the fantasy megaprojects.

Daniel J. Van Abs is currently Associate Professor of Practice for Water, Society and Environment at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. He has spent more than 30 years as a professional, manager, and advocate in the fields of water resources, watershed and regional environmental management. The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.

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