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Storm-Water Projects Seek Help from Increased DEP Funding

Communities and environmental groups plan on putting money into rain gardens and other schemes to reduce runoff

rain garden
Credit: City of Hoboken
A rain garden behind Hoboken City Hall collects overflow from cisterns that take runoff from the roof.

Managing storm-water runoff and its attendant pollution is a critical concern for New Jersey. That’s true in a city like Hoboken, where an estimated 94 percent of the surface is impervious. And it’s true in a town like Greenwich, in Warren County, where a new rain garden allows storm-water runoff from streets or lawns to filter into the soil rather than straight into a waterway.

Efforts to curb the flow of contaminated stormwater into rivers and creeks are increasing as municipalities, nonprofits, and universities develop their understanding of the risks of storm water and how to manage it.

And with more state funding for such projects recently announced by the Department of Environmental Protection, storm water advocates may be in a better position to achieve their goals.

In Greenwich, a 1,400-square-foot rain garden outside Rath’s Deli is designed to capture runoff from a “two-year” storm, in which 3.3 inches of rain falls in 24 hours, according to Juniper Leifer, project coordinator for the Lopatcong Creek Initiative, which built the garden.

Over a year, the installation is designed to capture and treat 140,000 gallons of storm water, reducing the flow of pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorous by 95 percent.

The rain garden also serves another important purpose: education. Leifer works with municipalities to help officials understand storm-water regulations, and to build public support for water-quality work.

Good time to plant rain gardens

This may be an opportune time to do both.

The DEP recently announced $10.4 million to help local groups with projects like creating rain gardens, building up stream banks, and promoting agricultural best practices — all in an effort to prevent contaminants such as animal wastes, pesticides and automotive fluids from entering waterways during rain storms.

The department invited bids from nonprofits, government agencies, and universities that are working on local storm-water control projects. The funding has increased from $6 million last year and has been drawn from the federal government, from settlements with corporate polluters, and from state Corporate Business Tax funds.

The increased funding for local groups is the latest sign that controlling storm water is a high priority for the DEP, said its spokesman, Larry Hajna. He said the program funded six local efforts last year and officials hope to raise that number with the increased funding this year.

“This will help more of these grassroots efforts take hold,” he wrote in an email. “By extension, these local projects will enhance public awareness, which is the real key to addressing storm water.”

Following the funding

Current funding recipients include North Jersey Resource Conservation & Development, a nonprofit that works on water management and other environmental programs in the Lower Musconetcong watershed in Warren County and the Neshanic watershed in Hunterdon County.

In the Neshanic area, the grant has helped the group stabilize the banks of Walnut Brook and create a wetland in Raritan Township, said Laura Tessieri, associate director of NJRC&D.

In both watersheds, the organization works with farmers to encourage them to adopt best-management practices such as preventing cattle waste from entering waterways, and planting cover crops to help prevent soil erosion.

The group also helps municipalities build rain gardens, which are seen to by the NJRC&D and similar groups as an important way of building public support for storm-water management.

“They are a great way to introduce storm-water management to the public,” Tessieri said. The group is nearing the end of a five-year DEP grant for its work in the Neshanic watershed, and may apply for the new round of DEP funding, she said.

Reducing E. coli

The effectiveness of grant-funded projects can be measured by improved water quality, Tessieri said. At West Portal Brook in the Musconetcong watershed, the project achieved a sharp reduction in E. coli content by building a crossing that helped farmers keep their cows out of the stream.

Elsewhere in Warren County, the Lopatcong Creek Initiative is applying for DEP funding to help its work on water quality in the creek. The nonprofit, part of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, works with municipalities to help officials understand storm-water regulations, and to build public support for water-quality work, said Leifer.

The Lopatcong initiative is also part of a cluster of groups working on water quality in the Highlands region under the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, led by the William Penn Foundation.

“Our effort is focused on getting that conversation started in the community and to help engage municipal leaders with our partner organizations,” Leifer said. Local leaders who are trying to understand the complexities of storm-water management often don’t have the background in the subject, she said.

“It is important to provide education and resources to local communities to enable them to plan new development with the protection of water resources in mind, and to implement green infrastructure projects like rain gardens and retrofit failing storm-water systems,” she added.

Storm water in Hoboken

In Hoboken, the need for storm-water control is heightened by the threat of more devastating storm surges like that from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and by the city’s combined sewer overflow (CSO) system which, like that in many older cities, empties storm water and untreated sewage directly into waterways during heavy storms.

As a result, Hoboken is undertaking projects designed to curb runoff and reduce the threat of flash floods, several of which have happened since Sandy. It aims eventually to create 15 rain gardens.

“It’s a major challenge for our community so we’re really focused on trying to make sure we do things in a more resilient way,” Mayor Dawn Zimmer told NJ Spotlight. She said the city would be applying for the DEP’s new storm-water funding.

Projects include Southwest Park, a one-acre tract designed to hold 150,000 gallons of storm water, and to become a model for green infrastructure throughout the city. The park, which is due for completion this summer, will include a rain garden, porous pavers, and a cistern for rainwater harvesting and reuse. The park is being built on the site of a parking lot.

In northwest Hoboken, the city is planning to build a “detention system” for 1 million gallons of storm water beneath a new park on five acres of recently purchased land.

Officials are discussing new ways of managing storm water at the northwest site, Zimmer said. They include separating storm water from sewage flows in that location, and pumping the storm water into the Hudson River, or finding uses for the storm runoff such as landscaping or street cleaning.

“The more you can hold that rainwater back from going into the sewer system at the time that you get those heavy rain events, the better off you’ll be,” she said.

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who often covers water and environmental issues.

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