Op-Ed: NJ Needs Stormwater Utilities to Deal with Extreme Weather, Flooding

Ed Potosnak | December 17, 2018 | Opinion
New Jersey, the most densely developed state in the country, is extremely vulnerable to the growing threat of severe weather and intense rainstorms

Ed Potosnak
If 83 percent of a population was reporting symptoms of an illness, it would be an epidemic. Community leaders would certainly act to address the crisis and protect their constituency.

In a survey of more than 350 communities in 48 states released in November, researchers found that 83 percent of communities experienced local inland flooding. The report, by the University of Maryland and Texas A&M University details the first-ever study to assess the scope and consequences of urban flooding on a national level, and the results are staggering.

The study suggested that much of the damage caused by local flooding was the result of overwhelmed drainage systems and the impact of development on natural drainage patterns. The problem is so pervasive that 85 percent of communities experienced flooding outside of designated Flood Hazard Areas. The report concludes with a sobering finding — the federal government is not helping, so it’s up to state and local officials to address this problem.

Local flooding is a familiar sight in New Jersey — an overwhelmed sewer drain in the street; a small creek flooding over into an adjacent road; or flood-damaged homes and businesses near a creek or stream. New Jersey has a $16 billion water infrastructure problem, and right now there is no dedicated funding source to solve this growing problem.

Damage to homes, businesses, public infrastructure

Just a few weeks ago, the remnants of Hurricane Michael — a few inches of rain over a few hours — spurred road closures and power outages across the Garden State. Flash floods ravage our state throughout the year, as heavy rains overflow our creeks and streams and overwhelm our storm drains. This flooding not only damages homes and businesses, but also public infrastructure like roads and bridges.

The recently published National Climate Assessment assessed the impact, risks, and attempts to adapt to climate change in the United States. It is chock-full of alarming and terrifying news, including the threat climate change poses for human health, safety, and the rate of economic growth. But one part of the assessment that hasn’t been getting enough attention is this: If we continue as is, inland local flooding events will increase by a factor of two to three times. Not only will they become more frequent, they will also become more severe. That means, on average, a homeowner could expect to endure a severe 100-year storm during the period of their 30-year mortgage.

As the most densely developed state in the country, New Jersey is extremely vulnerable to this growing threat. We urgently need a way to address severe weather and intense rainstorms. Fortunately, the state Legislature is stepping up to the challenge with the Flood Defense Act.
The Flood Defense Act (A-2694/S-1073) would protect against urban flooding by enabling local communities to meet their stormwater challenges head-on. The bill authorizes municipalities and counties to establish a stormwater utility, a proven model currently used in more than 1,800 communities in 40 states across the country. Unfortunately, New Jersey isn’t one of them — at least not yet.

A stormwater utility is generally regarded as the most effective — and most equitable — model to address this threat. It is a local, dedicated fund that is treated like water, sewer, electric or other utilities. A stormwater utility assesses a small user fee based on how much hard surfaces such as concrete, rooftops or pavement are on a property. The legislation mandates that no more than 5 percent of the funds can be used for general operations and administration, ensuring that the money is used as intended — on stormwater projects that improve the community.

A public works bill

The Flood Defense Act is really a public works bill. Giving local governments this tool will help them build the projects they need to defend their communities from flooding and polluted runoff. It will also create and sustain local jobs for contractors, engineers and construction workers. And the projects can help beautify our urban communities with much-needed green space and improve public safety.

It’s time for New Jersey to catch up with the rest of the country and enable our municipalities to enact stormwater utilities. If Ogden, Utah, and Spartanburg, South Carolina, can do it, then Camden, Trenton or Phillipsburg should be able to. The Flood Defense Act will allow that to happen.

The act has already passed through the Senate and is awaiting a second committee vote in the Assembly. Thanks to leadership from environmental champions in the Legislature, New Jersey is poised to be an environmental leader once again. The safety of our municipalities depends on it.