Opinion: Flood Control, a Misguided Veto

R. William Potter | September 12, 2011 | Energy & Environment
A statewide flood control law could leave New Jersey high and dry

With deadly flood waters still isolating dozens of communities across New Jersey, it’s time to revisit Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to veto a bill authorizing Ocean County to create the state’s first “stormwater utility” as a kind of “laboratory to demonstrate the feasibility of such a project.”

On August 25, only days before the first winds and waves of Hurricane Irene slammed into the state, the governor issued his absolute veto of S-1815, which had the ungainly — but descriptive — title of the “Ocean County Stormwater Management System Demonstration Act.”

The bill set up a pilot program to test a concept that environmentalists and flood control engineers have been pushing for years: A public authority (or utility) with the power to plan, finance and build the sorts of facilities that are sorely needed to control the stormwater runoff that causes “non point pollution” (oil and crud from roadways, fertilizer nutrients, and so on), as well as extensive flooding every time it rains hard.

The primary purpose of the legislation was to protect Barnegat Bay, but its secondary goals also include flood control. I wonder: If the law had been written as the “Flood Prevention and Property Protection Act,” might it have met a different fate? And what would be the Governor’s reaction to such a flood control bill now, after the entire state has been declared a disaster area, with flood damage measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars?

In his veto message, the governor emphasized his strong commitment to protecting Barnegat Bay (where Ocean County’s stormwater ultimately discharges), while rejecting the bill as “not the time to increase the tax burden” on beleaguered property owners.

But the bill does not increase taxes:

First, it would allow — but not require — Ocean County freeholders to establish a stormwater utility. If the popularly elected, solidly Republican board doesn’t buy into this pilot project, it would be D.O.A. Conversely, if the freeholders vote for it, they would presumably have decided that the public benefits were worth the costs. Democracy in action.

Second, the new authority would be empowered to “charge and collect fees for uses or services of the stormwater management system” built by the new utility. These are fees for services rendered, like paying your electric bill, not taxes levied on all properties. And these fees would be limited to a rate structure formula devised by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for “specific costs of the stormwater management system.” Frankly, it is very doubtful that Gov. Christie’s DEP would allow for excessive fees under any circumstances.

The bill reflects a very conservative concept, similar to “let the polluter, not society, pay” philosophy: Charge only the users of the facilities and cap what they pay to cost-based fees. Under this system, developers would have to pay for the cleanup of the pollution discharged from such impervious surfaces, such as asphalt driveways, traditional roofs, and the like. These are real costs that would otherwise be “socialized” as “externalities” imposed on everyone, to borrow the language of Econ 101.

In the same manner, land developers could also be assessed for their fair share of the costs of controlling stormwater which has made a mess of much of New Jersey, inundating homes and filling countless basements.

Best of all, by limiting charges to those who create the need for the stormwater facilities — such as culverts, holding tanks, and treatment plants — the bill provides a powerful incentive for developers to minimize the creation of impervious surfaces.

How? Let me count the ways:

Developers can build upward instead of laterally. They can build green roofs. They can choose permeable concrete to allow for seepage .

Best of all, they can rely more on “nonstructural strategies” by building around, rather than over, greenways, water-storing wetlands and grasses that trap rain for recharging groundwater instead of transforming nature’s bounty into a public hazard.

Let’s face it: How else are we as a society to fund the types of systems needed to protect not only waterways, such as Barnegat Bay, from “non point” pollution but also to prevent the massive damage to the entire state likely caused by the next tropical storm? Anti-tax advocates complain that New Jersey is losing wealth and population to states with lower income taxes. Never mind the data showing that to be a myth. How many washed-out, flooded-out families and businesses would not gladly pick up and move if only they could find a buyer for their sodden properties?

Let’s give it up for the “Flood Prevention and Property Protection Act,” not just as a law limited to one pilot project in one county. The state needs what it has to offer: a way out of an otherwise tragically predicable pattern of heavy rains washing out our homes and our hopes.