How Best to Cope with NJ's "#1 Natural Hazard"

The Watershed Center, host of the stormwater symposium, is an example of the best practices it preaches.

The Watershed Center, host of the stormwater symposium, is an example of the best practices it preaches.

Storm clouds loomed (appropriately!) over The Watershed Institute in Pennington on June 19, as the 2019 Stormwater Utility Symposium convened inside. “We have a challenge,” warned FEMA representative John Miller, who was speaking about the growing threat of urban flooding. FEMA once declared floods to be New Jersey’s #1 natural hazard, and “flood problems are likely to get worse, with continued urban development and climate change.”

Yet, there is a light on the horizon: the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) is on the verge of adopting a new set of stormwater management rules that would require green infrastructure solutions; and the NJ Clean Stormwater and Flood Reduction Act was signed into law this year, giving municipalities, counties and some authorities the ability to create a stormwater utility program.

“I do hope that this year, communities start having the conversation with their residents about the issues and start the planning process toward the future creation of a stormwater utility program,” said Michael Pisauro, Policy Director of The Watershed Institute. New Jersey thus joins 40 states and the District of Columbia - who have cumulatively created as many as two thousand stormwater utilities - in a show of bipartisan support for a real set of solutions to flooding issues across the country.

A mix of consultants, engineers, environmental advocates and municipal representatives gathered at the Watershed Institute to discuss how these important developments might play out in their communities, and to hear about new resources such as the Green Infrastructure Municipal Toolkit compiled by New Jersey Future.

Stephen Souza introduced NJ Future’s Green Infrastructure Municipal Toolkit

Stephen Souza introduced NJ Future’s Green Infrastructure Municipal Toolkit

“Why is green infrastructure so slow to be ‘mainstreamed’ in New Jersey?” lamented Stephen Souza of Clean Waters Consulting, and blamed the slow pace of public acceptance on fear of the unknown. “People have a fear of nature. When they see a nicely-mown detention basin, they say it’s nice. When they see green infrastructure, they say it’s unkempt. I’ve been asked if rain gardens lead to more ticks, or even to ‘perverts’ hiding in the grass!”. The site took great pains to debunk these and other common myths associated with green infrastructure.

“The jargon is too deep,” volunteered a member of the audience. “It’s so opaque that people can’t get jazzed about it. That’s the missing piece. The technical stuff is important, but it’s not the selling point.”

But this was a stormwater-savvy crowd, and it was the ‘technical stuff’ they came to hear: what the changes in regulatory requirements mean for existing services; meticulous detail on how to launch a successful stormwater mitigation strategy; and clarification of the terms that will define stormwater policies, such as the “impervious surfaces” that are commonly used to assess stormwater fees, the “TSS (Total Suspended Solids) removal rates” by which water quality is measured, the special requirements of “combined sewer overflow (CSO)” systems, etc.

The audience acknowledged that it will take some work to persuade the public of the need, not only for more environmentally-sound stormwater management, but also for the means to finance it. What it boils down to, according to Prabha Kumar of the infrastructure engineering firm Black & Veatch, is that “people don’t think of stormwater as a utility. But the stormwater user fee is not about generating money. It’s about solving problems.”

Donna LiuComment