Does NJ Need Stormwater Utilities to Stem Polluted Runoff and Flooding?

The utilities, common in other states, would levy fees on residents and businesses to fund improvements in stormwater systems

stormwater runoff
Until the state and towns begin addressing pollution caused by stormwater runoff, New Jersey will be hard-pressed to stem flooding and to upgrade water quality, experts said yesterday.

With climate change increasing abnormal flooding events, the problems caused by runoff from parking lots, streets and other impervious surfaces is likely to get worse, a panel of engineers, consultants, and local officials said at an event sponsored by The Watershed Institute.

The half-day conference focused on the creation of stormwater utilities; in place in more than 1,800 jurisdictions in 40 states, these utilities have helped municipalities and others deal more comprehensively with the issue. But not in New Jersey.

The state has made a good effort to address this problem, said Jim Waltman, executive director of the institute, but added, “Even the best efforts only slow the rate of the problem from getting worse,’’ he said.

Rain is funneled from the roof into a garden at The Watershed Institute in Pennington.
For the past several years, the state Legislature has pushed various measures to create stormwater utilities, which would allow fees be imposed on residents and businesses to fund ways to limit pollution and flooding from stormwater systems across the state.

The legislation has failed to win enactment, although a new bill (S-1076) has been approved by the Senate and is expected to be pushed by advocates this fall.

A major source of pollution in NJ

Stormwater runoff is blamed for the major source of pollution in the state’s waters, undermining huge investments to curb discharges from industrial and wastewater plants where expensive upgrades have been made.

Communities will have spent a ton of money and see little improvement in water quality, according to James Cosgrove, chair of the New Jersey Water Council, and a vice president of Kleinfelder, Inc., an international consulting firm.

“Gigantic nonpoint sources have to be upgraded,’’ he said. “Until we focus on existing development, we are not going to solve the problem.’’

Tim Filasky, acting director of public works and recreation in Newark, Delaware, noted most of that city’s stormwater ends up in its drinking water.

This week’s heavy rainfall underscored the challenge. Local roads that only were closed because of flooding every five years in the past, are now being inundated several times a year, said Cosgrove, who could not get to his home in Princeton yesterday because of the unusually heavy rainfall.

Fee assessed on the amount of impervious surface owned

In many places around the nation, communities are turning to stormwater utilities to help solve the problem. They allow municipalities or regional authorities to levy a fee on businesses and residents to finance improvements to stormwater systems.

The fee, generally assessed on the amount of impervious surface owned, provides a stable and sustainable source of funding to fix problems posed by aging or inadequately designed stormwater systems.

“Unless we spend more effort on stormwater systems, we are not going to be able to restore watersheds,’’ Cosgrove said.

Waltman agreed. “We need more tools,’’ he argued, mentioning new sources of funding and bold new approaches in strategies.

In New Jersey, the bill is permissive, allowing a county, municipality or regional authority to collect fees to recover the costs of managing stormwater runoff.

Proponents argued the fees imposed to deal with issues raised by stormwater are more than offset by the benefits they produce — less flooding and improved water quality.

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