Op-Ed: New Utilities Would Help NJ Fight Flooding and Pollution

Stephen J. Souza, John A. Thonet | January 31, 2019 | Opinion
New Jersey needs stormwater utilities to provide a sustained source of local funding to improve and maintain stormwater infrastructure

Stephen J. Souza and John A. Thonet
2018 will be one of the wettest years on record for the Garden State, and all that rain has resulted in frequent flooding, millions of dollars in damages, gridlocked traffic, impacted drinking water and polluted waterways.

The problem is daunting, but there is a solution. For decades, the state has provided comprehensive planning and regulations aimed at protecting the public from the flooding impacts of improperly and inadequately managed stormwater. These efforts have helped but failed to address all the social, economic and environmental impacts associated with stormwater runoff. Today, rather than continuing to use conventional “collect, detain and discharge” approaches to controlling runoff, the use of “green infrastructure” is proving to be a better alternative. It’s focused on reducing runoff at its source, through recharge, reuse and evapotranspiration, rather than just treating it as a “waste” or “nuisance” to get rid of as quickly as possible.

Green infrastructure measures include porous pavement, green roofs, rain barrels, rain gardens, bioretention basins and other techniques designed to capture rainwater and allow it to soak into the ground instead of concentrating and discharging it downstream. Additionally, the “green infrastructure” approach is far more attractive and provides ecological and community benefits that can’t be achieved with standard detention basins.

So, what’s the hold-up? The answer is the absence of a sustained source of local funding to implement and maintain new stormwater infrastructure, including green infrastructure, as well as to retrofit, upgrade or replace failing existing stormwater management facilities.

New source of funding needed

Local governments all want to construct, improve, maintain and operate stormwater management systems to defend against the threat of flooding, protect drinking water and enhance our natural resources. But without the funding to back a systemic effort, a site-by-site approach is implemented whenever funding becomes available or a crisis mandates that action be taken. This simply is not an effective or responsible way to manage stormwater or to protect our fragile water resources. As a result, many communities remain extremely vulnerable to the damaging effects of stormwater flooding and its environmental consequences.

Fortunately, state leaders are poised to do something about this funding problem. The Flood Defense Act (A-2694/S-1073) will enable counties, municipalities, and certain authorities to establish local stormwater programs, with dedicated sources of funding, to protect against flooding and the pollution of the surface and groundwater resources we so dearly rely upon.

This act would permit the formation of “stormwater utilities” that operate similarly to other utilities like electric, water or sewer utilities. A stormwater utility assesses a user fee based on how much impervious surface (rooftops or pavement) are on a property. The generated funds are dedicated to stormwater improvement projects and kept separate from general funds, so they can only be used to retrofit, construct, inspect and maintain stormwater facilities, including highly effective green infrastructure.

Forty states already have stormwater utilities

We know this approach works. Local governments across the country effectively use stormwater utility programs to protect public and private properties and irreplaceable surface and groundwater resources. In this respect, New Jersey is the outlier — more than 1,600 communities in 40 states have used stormwater utilities to properly manage and maintain stormwater facilities.

Around the country, where similar stormwater utility programs have been instituted, the resulting residential fees are modest, but yield very tangible benefits. Based on our experience, we can say that providing New Jersey municipalities with the authority to establish stormwater utilities would be a cost-effective and equitable way to protect our residents, our businesses and our environment against the ravages of flooding and the degradation of our vital water resources.

We urge the New Jersey Legislature to act quickly to pass the Flood Defense Act and authorize the statewide establishment of stormwater utilities. This action would represent a positive step toward providing the jurisdictions responsible for stormwater management with a sustainable source of funding, help promote the implementation of green infrastructure, and enable a proven and greatly needed means by which to manage damaging stormwater. New Jersey communities can’t afford to wait for the next big flood event or further threats to the quality of our surface and groundwater resources.