Op-Ed: Climate Change is an Equity Issue; Green Infrastructure Can Help on the Water Front

Louise Wilson | August 10, 2020 | Opinion, Water
Newly adopted rules are good, but we must dramatically improve stormwater management on previously developed sites
Louise Wilson

Oh, for the days when we confronted (it seemed) one crisis at a time. New Jersey, like much of the world, doesn’t have that luxury today. The crises keep on coming: COVID-19, a reinvigorated reckoning with systemic racism, unemployment, recession. And the granddaddy of them all, presenting threats that, like each of the above, affect Black and brown people disproportionately: climate change.

“Overwhelming” is a word in heavy circulation. Another word top of mind is “resilience” — not resilience as in bouncing back like an inflatable punching bag, but rather the ability to recover from setbacks, regroup, maybe rethink, evolve and move forward. To this way of thinking, resilience involves growth and change. Hold that thought!

And here it is, the hot and stormy season.

Invoking killer heat and floodwaters right now might seem like piling on. But more and more, these kinds of events prove catastrophic, and of course, weigh most heavily on the most vulnerable among us. After all, if you can’t flee to the suburbs or country house when the waters rise, you may find yourself jammed together with hundreds of strangers in a high school gym. Those with the least resources pay the highest price.

It’s been clear for a long time that traditional ways of dealing with stormwater are insufficient. Flooding is getting more frequent and more severe, and although the filthiest waters in New Jersey are getting cleaner, the cleanest streams are getting more polluted. So while strengthening stormwater rules might seem like small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, effective regulations will make a big difference over time as developed areas become greener and more absorbent, making neighborhoods cleaner, cooler, healthier and more equitable for everyone.

The rule amendments adopted by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection earlier this year, which take effect next March, require the use of green infrastructure to manage stormwater from new developments. It took years and years to adopt these “Phase One” amendments. They are limited in scope, but they’re important. They reflect the basic truth that getting rainwater into the ground, where it’s cleaned by filtering through soils, works better than routing that water (and the chemicals, oil, waste and plastics it collects) into a pipe that delivers polluted water to the nearest stream or lake. This paradigm shift challenges design professionals — engineers, landscape architects and architects (problem-solvers all!) — to fold stormwater management features into site design; make creative use of nooks and crannies; design buildings, public spaces and even roadways that absorb water.

We need to strengthen standards

To be clear, however, the Phase One amendments, also known as the green infrastructure rule, may not move the needle much on water quality or flood control because (a) the underlying standards for water quality, groundwater recharge and quantity control are unchanged and (b) the rules do not apply fully to redevelopment. Most development these days takes place on previously developed sites, which generate the highest volume of polluted runoff and yet are currently exempt from important stormwater requirements. If we don’t dramatically improve stormwater management on these sites we will never adequately address chronic flooding and pollution. And again — of course — the people most affected are those who live in low-lying, mostly low-income urban neighborhoods.

Returning to the notion of resilience: that first Phase One round of stormwater rule amendments can be seen as the regrouping, rethinking, evolution part of the equation. The next Phase Two round of amendments is the moving-forward part.

New Jersey urgently needs additional stormwater rule amendments that strengthen standards and apply those standards to redevelopment. Fortunately, a second round of amendments appears to be moving more swiftly than the first, thanks to Gov. Murphy’s initiative called NJ PACT (Protecting Against Climate Threats). Rule improvements being discussed include requiring a certain amount of rainfall to be retained on-site and applying the stormwater management requirements to all development. These are the kinds of steps needed to effectuate the greening of our cities, to reintroduce natural systems that contribute so powerfully to creating strong, healthy, resilient communities for everyone.

One thing that’s become abundantly clear as we double down on capital-p Problem-solving — be it COVID, racial justice and equity, access to health care and housing, or climate change and its myriad impacts — is that addressing big issues is not a spectator sport, and often involves transforming entire systems. That is hard work, and success depends on credible voices, solid coalitions and timing. All of those were key to adopting the green infrastructure rule, and will remain important in the effort to further improve the rules — and indeed to tackling the whole menu of societal challenges that keep us up at night.