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Opinion: NJ Shouldn’t Wait for Federal Funds Before Reducing Flood Damages

The uncertainty of federal funding dictates that New Jersey view every project through the lens of self-funding

Daniel J. Van Abs
Daniel J. Van Abs

New Jersey has been the victim of many catastrophic floods over the years, in the Passaic, Raritan, Hackensack, and Delaware river basins and along the shore. Fundamentally, the damages are caused by development in the wrong places. Professionals in the field question whether the term “natural disasters” is really appropriate. Storms are part of nature; it is when we put ourselves in harm’s way that disasters occur.

For decades, New Jersey has assumed that the federal government, usually through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will come to the rescue by designing projects for state consideration and then providing the bulk of funding for the selected solutions. Those solutions are most often structural, involving dams, walls, dikes, channelization, and such. Projects of this type have been built in tributaries to the Passaic River, including the Ramapo River in the Oakland area, Molly Ann’s Brook in Paterson, Prospect Park and Haledon, and the lower Saddle River. In the Raritan River basin, flood walls protecting Bound Brook were completed recently. Along the Jersey Shore, artificial beaches and dunes are usually the preferred solutions. In each case, the intent is to protect developed lands from floods, up to storms of a specific size.

Less commonly, we remove development from flood zones, such as the Blue Acres programs funded from Hurricane Sandy grants, state funds, and some local governments, such as Morris County. In these cases, the potential for flood damages is permanently eliminated in the affected areas.

No rescue by the cavalry

What happens, though, when New Jersey is faced with high flood-damage risks and the Army never rides over the hill to save us? Around the country, many projects have been authorized but never funded by Congress. For example, a recent article in Roll Call notes that in the past fiscal year, the $2.1 billion Corps of Engineers appropriation for project construction is a minor share of its backlog of $96 billion. Federal funds are growing less available relative to need, not more. There are always more demands for funding than available funds. The costs of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence, and Michael in just two years emphasizes the point.

The Passaic River is an example. I worked for the Passaic River Coalition, a nonprofit organization, in the mid-1980s when the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection endorsed an Army Corps of Engineers project to ease flooding in areas of the central Passaic River basin in western Essex, southern Passaic, and northeastern Morris counties, by building a tunnel from there to Newark Bay. That was in 1984. Regardless of how you view the project (and the PRC has long opposed it, favoring less structural solutions), the fact is that little significant action has occurred within the area for the subsequent 34 years. (Full disclosure: I have been a member of the PRC board of trustees since 2013, but write here as an individual.)

No ringing endorsement

Studies are ongoing that may or may not result in a project design that meets both Army Corps standards (the benefits must exceed the costs, among other criteria) and local needs. A 2014 report from the Army Corps indicated that three multibillion-dollar alternatives appeared to be “marginally economical,” which is not a ringing endorsement. The Roll Call article indicates that the federal Office of Management and Budget will only dedicate funds for projects that return 2.5 dollars for each dollar spent, a more stringent threshold than the Corps’ rules. To date, the Passaic doesn’t qualify.

Another increasing problem is routine flooding in the Jersey Shore area from higher tides due to sea-level rise, a problem that will only get worse over time. Coastal storm damages are exacerbated by rising sea levels and extensive shore development. The Army Corps is active there also, in a multiyear study that may or may not result in an acceptable design.

Neither region has any guarantee of federal funding, and the national history of unfunded Corps projects argues that funding will be very hard to achieve. This uncertainty raises some important questions for New Jersey policymakers. If the federal government won’t act, should New Jersey proceed alone, assuming that we can find the funds? More to the point, if federal funding is not available, and New Jersey doesn’t see the project as sufficiently useful to fund on its own, is that project really worthwhile?

Think of it this way. If you will make an improvement to your house only with a government subsidy, and not on your own, why would anyone think that you really value that project?

Given the potential that federal funds will never come, or not for decades, New Jersey needs to look at all projects through a different lens. Is it good enough, important enough, valuable enough to be worthy of implementation without federal subsidies?

Forget all arguments about how New Jersey pays far more in federal taxes than it receives back; that argument has been ignored by Congress for many years. It took months to gain post-Sandy funding despite massive damages! At that, Congress responds better to a current disaster than the potential of a future disaster. Do we really want the Passaic River Basin or the Jersey Shore to go through another Irene or Sandy just to open the federal money spigot?

Footing the whole bill

Would we act if we had to pay the entire bill? That is the key question. Sure, we should take federal funds if they are available and offered, but the lesson of recent decades is that we can’t rely on Congress, even with the best efforts of our elected officials.

The other major question is whether New Jersey benefits more by acting now, rather than waiting years for the possibility of federal funding. We have the opportunity, as many areas redevelop, to improve the resilience of our buildings, public transportation, and water infrastructure. Doing so as part of redevelopment or other major upgrades will be far more cost-effective than adding resilience later. Improved building codes, infrastructure standards, and judicious buyouts of the most frequently flooded properties can make room for the inevitable floodwaters, reduce damages, and reduce risks to the public and our emergency responders.

Argument against unilateral action

One argument made against taking unilateral action is ironic and shows the difficulty of this issue. Reducing the potential for flood damages now will also reduce the potential benefits of a later Army Corps project. That same 2014 Corps report noted that “… buyouts of frequently damaged structures have decreased the available benefits.” So, by helping people now, we reduce the potential for later federal funding. But should this really be a factor in our decision?

If we know how to reduce flood damages and improve public safety now, is it fair to flood-prone residents to wait perhaps decades for Uncle Sugar to show up? Or should we act now so that some people are better protected or removed from harm’s way through all those years? We already are doing some of this, but more can and should be done.

I argue that acting now to reduce current and future risks is the right and ethical action, regardless of how it affects potential federal funding. After all, if the Army Corps project is really worth implementing, its benefits should so far outweigh costs that ongoing projects to reduce damages shouldn’t affect the economic results. If the Army Corps project is barely justified, economically, then its value is questionable anyway, and the likelihood of federal funding is poor. Let’s recognize, despite our parochial interests, that Congress really should fund the best projects first.

The uncertainty of federal funding dictates that New Jersey view every project through the lens of self-funding. If the project is good enough for us to pay for using state, county, local, and private funds, then we should move forward using our own resources while, of course, attempting to secure federal funds. If the project isn’t good enough for New Jersey to pay for, then we should look to other approaches. After all, if it isn’t good enough for us to fund, why should Congress?

Daniel J. Van Abs is associate professor of practice for water, society, and environment at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. He has spent more than 30 years as a professional, manager, and advocate in the fields of water resources and watershed and regional environmental management. With Karen O'Neill, he is co-editor and co-author of "Taking Chances: The Coast After Hurricane Sandy" from Rutgers University Press. The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.

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