Rain Gardens in NJ: Small Projects Help Alleviate Stormwater Problems

It will take billions to bring New Jersey’s water infrastructure up to standard. In the meantime, clean-water activists are helping communities make small changes to mitigate stormwater damage

Credit: Kim Gaddy
A rain garden in Newark
A community rain garden may seem like a minor contribution to the multibillion-dollar overhaul of New Jersey’s water infrastructure that experts say is needed, but it’s a start.

Rain gardens, which allow stormwater to soak into the ground rather than running off into drains and rivers, are just one of a multitude of local initiatives undertaken by groups affiliated with Jersey Water Works, a statewide collaborative that advocates for the massive task of repairing and renewing the state’s antiquated network of stormwater drains and drinking water pipes.

At the organization’s annual meeting in Newark last week, local activists committed to a new series of projects for 2019 and reflected on their achievements this year.

The nonprofit Clean Water Action, for example, spent 2018 building rain gardens in two sections of Newark, and persuading people there that their homes and streets will stop flooding if they agree to a little less blacktop and a little more permeable surface.

“Oftentimes, people don’t connect these community gardens with green infrastructure,” said Kim Gaddy, an environmental justice organizer with the group. “That’s what people see, and they can identify with that and then they get it on a larger scale which we are asking residents to support.”

Many ‘ah-ha’ moments for residents

stormwater runoff
Following through on its commitment made a year ago, Clean Water Action spent 2018 educating residents of public housing and a senior-citizen community in Newark on the benefits of green infrastructure like rain gardens, which are designed to stop contaminant-laden stormwater overloading sewers, pouring into waterways, and flooding streets.

Meetings with community members resulted in many “ah-ha” moments when residents began to understand that it was in their interests to support the projects, and to maintain them after they are built, Gaddy said.

“They can see the benefits of the rain coming off the roof and into a rain barrel rather than just flowing away,” she said. “It’s really important to get the public buy-in because we want the project to be built, and we want residents to maintain it.”

At a senior housing community, Gaddy’s group arranged for blacktop on two parking spaces to be replaced with porous paving, allowing residents better access to an area that previously flooded during rain storms.

“It speaks to the importance of engaging the community, and what they want the community to look like,” she said.

It all adds up

Gaddy’s neighborhood projects may pale by comparison with the $25 billion of water infrastructure improvements that Jersey Water Works says are needed across the state over the next 20 years. But when combined with dozens of other commitments by the collaborative’s approximately 300 member groups, they begin to create overall change.

The City of Elizabeth, for example, has committed in 2019 to completing a stormwater control project that includes land acquisition, installing green infrastructure and new pipework, and educational signage. The New Jersey Sustainable Business Council plans to educate businesses on the role of clean water and sewer systems in a vibrant economy. And the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank, a major source of financing for water upgrades, has agreed to provide technical assistance and help with financing applications for green infrastructure, and to communicate that process through blog posts.

While individual groups are making their own contributions, major change will still require massive investment, a subject that was addressed by advocates for different approaches at the conference.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex)
State Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), who chairs the Senate’s Environment and Energy Committee, said the necessary funding is unlikely to come from the federal government any time soon, or from future state bond issues, which he said would probably be rejected by voters who don’t want to add to New Jersey’s already-heavy debt load.

So the most likely way of raising the billions needed would be to charge ratepayers an additional 40 cents for every thousand gallons of water consumed. That would cost the average family $32 a year, a modest sum by comparison with the significant benefits it would bring, Smith said.

Good chance governor on board

“If you pose the question to the citizens of the state: ‘Do you want your children not to be poisoned? Would you like to have water when there’s a drought? It’s going to cost you $3 a month.’ I think they’d say yes,” he said.

On the stormwater side, Smith said there’s a good chance that Gov. Phil Murphy will soon sign a bill authorizing local authorities to create stormwater utilities, which would be able to charge property owners if they have significant areas of impervious surface — the source of damaging stormwater runoff. The revenue would have to be used for reducing stormwater flooding.

A previous version of the Clean Stormwater and Flood Reduction Act (S-1073) was vetoed by the “dark lord”, Smith said, referring to former Gov. Chris Christie. But the bill — passed by the Senate and now before the Assembly appropriations committee — is likely to be signed by Murphy next year, Smith said.

“The dark lord is gone and now we have the green lord. So I am very, very hopeful that in 2019 we are actually going to have the ability to set up stormwater utilities,” he said.

A role for the private sector?

Beyond the possibility of public funding for water infrastructure, local authorities can also look to so-called impact investors, who seek social improvement as well as financial returns.

Margaret Bowman of the impact investor Spring Point Partners told the conference that the private sector will have to help fill a big funding gap for water-infrastructure projects.

“Flexible, risk-tolerant money is going to help do that,” she said. “We don’t take three years to make a decision on investment. We don’t have complicated terms. We are willing to try something new. We support innovation not only in the type of infrastructure we’re investing in but in the type of financing we’re using.”

Credit: Alisha Goldstein/EPA
Rain gardens allow stormwater to soak into the ground rather than running off into drains and rivers.
In the City of Camden, a combination of grants and loans has allowed the Municipal Utilities Authority to create 100 acres of green space that will absorb stormwater, reducing or preventing the city’s notorious flooding and allowing the MUA to meet its 2018 commitment to Jersey Water Works, said Andy Kricun, the authority’s executive director.

The authority’s pledge to JWW was to accelerate implementation of a plan to eliminate flooding from the city’s combined sewer overflow system by 2020, and there’s a good chance it will achieve that, Kricun said in an interview.

The authority hired a modeler who showed that the new open space would eliminate 90 percent of the flooding by 2020, and all of it in the event of a rainstorm of up to one inch. “We’re pretty confident this will make a big difference,” he said.

Although the flood measures in Camden would have happened anyway, the process has been helped by cooperation through Jersey Water Works with the other 24 New Jersey cities that are also working to overcome the challenges of combined sewer overflow systems, Kricun said.

“Trying to solve these problems in silos makes no sense,” he said. “Jersey Water Works brings us all together.”