After Ida’s pummeling, Rahway River towns step up pressure for flood control

Army Corps will restart search for solution, as required by new water law
Credit: (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Volunteers, employees and family members move water and mud to the sidewalk from Goldberg’s Famous Deli in Millburn, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, after the shop was flooded by the remnants of Hurricane Ida.

Eight Rahway River towns that were badly flooded during the remnants of Hurricane Ida and previous monster storms are renewing their appeals to federal and state authorities to implement measures to prevent another round of flooding when the next hurricane hits.

Prompted by their fears that climate change will bring more devastating flooding, the mayors are ready to be as “obnoxious” as they need to be to get flood protection after years of inaction despite their increasing vulnerability.

One of the mayors, Kathleen Prunty of Cranford, said it’s past time for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build flood-control measures that will shield the towns from the next big storm.

“The mayors have been in touch and we have committed to being very vocal, very visible, and very demanding in pushing for movement on a flood-control project,” she said. “We cannot take this anymore. This is it. We’re going to be obnoxious if we have to be.”

The Corps, which is responsible for any new flood-control measures, ended its evaluation of alternatives in 2019 after years studying its options, saying it did not accept a local plan to use weather forecasts to determine when to release water from an upstream reservoir.

Back to drawing board

That profoundly disappointed local officials and prompted strong protests from federal lawmakers. But the withdrawal was reversed in December last year when a new federal law ordered the Corps to resume its work on finding a solution, together with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the river towns.

On Thursday, a Corps spokesman would not say whether the agency supports a flood-control plan endorsed by all eight towns, or whether it will start from scratch in evaluating flood-control alternatives now that it is required to do so by the reauthorized Water Resources Development Act of 2020. But he promised that the agency will resume its search for a solution.

“New York District is currently working with our non-federal partners in looking at ways to reduce flood risk along the Rahway River,” said the spokesman, Michael Embrich. “Our higher headquarters is currently working on a way to implement a prior study authorization for the Rahway River Basin. We are committed to finding ways to reduce flood risk for the residents of New Jersey, as we move forward on this important focus area.”

Rebuke from lawmakers

The withdrawal drew a sharp rebuke at the time from New Jersey’s U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, and Reps. Tom Malinowski (7th) and Donald Payne Jr. (10th), all Democrats. In a letter to the Corps, they strongly rejected the agency’s decision to end its study, and urged it to take more time to find a solution to flood control that was acceptable to all the communities.

Booker inserted language in the Water Resources bill that directed the Corps to resume its study and to work with the towns on finding a solution, saying that residents live in “constant fear” of flooding during rain storms.

On Thursday, Booker said he will continue to seek funding for flood protection.

‘It has never been a question of if the communities along the Rahway River will flood again, but when and how bad will it be.’

“It has never been a question of if the communities along the Rahway River will flood again, but when and how bad will it be,” Booker said in a statement. “And now Ida has provided yet another tragic example.

“Despite decades of study, my constituents … are still waiting for an acceptable flood control project from the Army Corps. The legislation I wrote to bring the Army Corps of Engineers back to the table to design and construct an acceptable project must be implemented as expeditiously as possible,” he said.

Towns support flood-control alternative

The towns — Cranford, Millburn, Springfield, Maplewood, Union, Garwood, Kenilworth and Rahway, home to a total of about 190,000 people — support a modified version of one of 17 flood-control options that were presented by the Corps before its withdrawal.

The so-called bypass option would install outlet pipes from the Orange Reservoir to the west branch of the Rahway River, reducing the amount of water in the reservoir. That would allow it to become a retention basin during peak storm conditions, holding stormwater from further upstream and reducing flood risk for downstream communities. It’s also designed to stop the reservoir dam overtopping during a storm.

An alternative would be to increase the reservoir’s capacity by dredging, an option that the Corps dismissed as being too expensive to meet its cost-benefit ratio rules.

The system would be activated two to three days before a storm, based on weather forecasts. It would take three days to lower the reservoir to a level where it could take substantial flows from upstream during the coming storm. The reservoir would be replenished with stormwater runoff and underground streams. Another part of the towns’ plan would “channelize” the river to create more capacity and reduce water velocity during a storm.

Town officials defended their use of weather forecasts as the basis for the flood-control plan. Forecasts are already used by water authorities around the country including New York City’s water department, the Delaware River Basin Commission, and the Army Corps at a project in California, said Dan Aschenbach, a former mayor of Cranford, and the coordinator for the Mayors Council Rahway River Watershed Consensus Plan.

The towns’ plan would cost $29.6 million, less than half of the $69.6 million estimated by the Army Corps, and would result in a benefit-cost ratio of 2.2, exceeding the agency’s figure of 1.2, according to a presentation by the towns in July.

Federal help on climate change?

Aschenbach said it’s not acceptable to leave the issue unresolved at a time when climate change is already bringing heavier rains and bigger storms, as shown most recently by Ida.

“If nothing gets done, there’s no solution, that’s not an option,” he said. “You have the next rainstorm that’s coming around the corner. It’s going to happen sooner or later. Use the urgency of today to ensure that it moves forward.”

He said the towns’ plan could benefit from an expected influx of funds from the major infrastructure bill that’s now before Congress, and would sharply increase funding for flood-control projects.

In January, New Jersey’s chief resilience officer, Dave Rosenblatt, warned towns that they will have to take an increased responsibility for planning for climate change, and should budget for that.

Michael Cerra, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said towns have a “long history” of working together to resolve shared concerns. But he said local government doesn’t have the resources to resolve all issues, and will need state or federal help on issues such as climate change.

“As local leaders continue to move forward with plans to address the effects of climate change, you will begin to see even more partnerships amongst municipalities, with support and assistance coming from the state and federal level of government,” he said in a statement.

In Cranford, assessment of Ida’s financial impact is incomplete, but it is clearly significant, said Prunty. She said more than 400 homes were pumped out by the fire department, and damage to municipal buildings, parks and other facilities already totals more than $2 million.

Across the Rahway River basin, the cost of the damage is unlikely to be as much as the $100 million wrought by Hurricane Irene in 2011, Prunty said. But she noted that Ida’s flash flooding damaged areas outside the town’s flood zone that were not flooded by Irene.

“There are areas of town that never, ever flood, and didn’t in Irene, but they did this time,” she said. “They experienced water in the basement, some of them several feet deep. If you were in the flood zone, you got both – the river and the flash flooding.”

No need to go back to square one

As the Corps resumes its study, it’s not yet known whether it will start again or return to any of its previous options. Going back to “square one” would mean further delay to an already protracted exercise that would ignore the urgency of flood control in the age of climate change, Prunty said.

“We do not believe that you have to go back to square one,” she said. “To start from zero or close to zero is ludicrous. There has been so much work done, it doesn’t make any sense.”

For now, Prunty said she’s waiting for DEP to approve the towns’ plan as the nonfederal sponsor. On Sept. 7, the state agency said it will resume a feasibility study on solutions to Rahway River flooding, along with the Corps.

Chris Weber, mayor of Springfield, said the damage to his town was worse from Ida than from Hurricane Irene in 2011 but could have been less if the Corps had installed flood controls.

“The flooding would have been less severe had this problem been addressed by the Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Floyd, Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy,” he said. “We can only hope that the Army Corps finally fixes this issue. It affects too many towns and cities to list and it’s our belief that the financial cost of the storm damage far exceeds the cost of the fix.”

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