Rahway Alternative Flood Solutions Alliance (RAFSA)
December 3, 2013
Rahway River Flood Abatement Initiatives and Concerns
In the last year various efforts to study and undertake flood abatement in the Rahway River watershed have proceeded and gathered momentum. The two principal ones are the continuing study by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and the campaign mounted by the Mayors’ Council on Rahway Watershed Flood Control, an informal body of nine township officials in the watershed. USACE has listed seven abatement alternatives for evaluation. While the USACE has not finished its assessment, the Mayors’ Council seems focused on the two options that involve the creation of a South Mountain Reservoir, formed by an 880-foot long dam across the southern end of the South Mountain Reservation’s valley, to the neglect of less destructive alternatives.
To provide an alternative perspective to these efforts and champion a balanced approach to flood abatement, a number of local environmental leaders, both lay and professional, and stakeholder organizations have formed RAFSA, the Rahway Alternative Flood Solutions Alliance. RAFSA’s founding members, listed below, believe that from the start the Mayors’ Council’s efforts have been too hurried, too exclusive in their proceedings, and too narrow in considering options.
The promotion of a South Mountain Reservoir, in particular, places in jeopardy a treasured century-old park, one of the few large, natural open spaces in central New Jersey. The dry detention basin created behind the 70-foot high dam would flood up to 80 acres in times of extreme rainfall, such as Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Floyd, and a lesser area, 23 acres, during heavy annual storms. The proposed detention basin would then drain over a period of up to 3 ½ days.
RAFSA contends that reliance on a large, centralized detention basin for flood abatement is misguided. The pursuit of such a massive construction project would be environmentally destructive and socially unfair, and may not provide the needed flood abatement. The South Mountain Reservoir, even if dry most of the time, would destroy vegetation, and many trails and roads in the park. Essex County is already challenged by proportionately less open space than neighboring counties, so any acreage lost would be keenly felt. This loss would be especially tragic considering that such a reservoir would affect too little of the total river flow, only a portion of the Rahway River’s west branch, to prevent the most serious flooding downstream in towns like Cranford. The damage to the Reservation would be irreparable without solving the flooding problem.
A Balanced Flood Abatement Approach: Key Elements and Principles
RAFSA hopes to champion a more balanced approach involving best management practices founded on a preference for low-level, low-cost, environmentally-sound designs and methods. It requests USACE to consider seriously the many distributed abatement solutions possible along the length of the Rahway and its tributaries. The idea would be to modify the waterway channel where beneficial, especially at choke points, and to establish multiple, distributed water detention zones with substantial local action by the municipalities in flood-prone areas. In flood-prone areas, the waterways should be allowed permanent, sufficient space to expand, when necessary, using flood plains controlled by weirs and berms and not be forced to run in deep, narrow ditches bordered by buildings vulnerable to flooding.
RAFSA is committed to working with USACE and the Mayors’ Council to study the river and identify a broader range of solutions to watershed flood problems. Based on long-term, holistic designs, these solutions would avoid “Band-Aids” that preserve grandfathered bottleneck features, and not rely on one or two centralized detention basins. To be equitable, large-scale disruption upstream cannot, and should not, be a substitute solution for historically poor planning decisions that have made certain areas prone to flood.
RAFSA’s guiding solution principles and premises are:
- Distributed Responsibility. Every township in the watershed should be involved in planning for, and contributing to, overall flood abatement. Townships need to determine and implement local changes to manage and improve river flow by reducing runoff, eliminating choke points, widening channels, and restoring the flood plain. As major thoroughfares at times channel large volumes of water into the river, various transportation authorities also need to be involved.Flood abatement is not a problem to be dumped, like toxic waste, in someone else’s backyard. It is poor, discriminatory planning to incur the loss of valuable open space by designing massive abatement measures upstream to protect local features acting as choke points without sufficiently considering their removal or modification.
- Historical Development Causes. Most of the Rahway River watershed’s flooding problems are caused by a combination of factors, including increased areas with impermeable surfaces that hasten flow into the river channel, reduced breadth of the channel itself by short-sighted construction in historic flood plains, and long-established choke points behind which flood levels rise. These choke points and flood-prone areas are clearly identified in FEMA flood profile graphs and maps and provide obvious opportunities to reduce potential flooding.
- Fair, Open Planning. We wish to promote an open, transparent planning process that engages stakeholders and informs the public throughout the watershed. We believe that if constituents fully knew of the detention basin option, they would have not allowed the current analysis to proceed.
- City of Orange Water Needs. Any abatement plan must take into consideration emerging water quality and capacity problems of the City of Orange which relies on wells in the South Mountain Reservation. Solutions should consider means for the greater retention and percolation of rainfall into the soil to raise groundwater levels.
- Integrated Planning. Planning for abatement should be carried out in an overall watershed approach and in concert with municipal redevelopment and Greenway completion along a restored flood plain, from the Arthur Kill to the Watchungs.
We look forward to working with the Corps of Engineers, the Mayors’ Council, and interested members of the public to address the Rahway River’s flood abatement problems in a sensible and equitable fashion.
RAFSA Founding Members:
Václav E. (Vic) Beneš, Millburn; Jennifer Duckworth, Millburn; Katalin Gordon, Orange; Robert McCoy, Maplewood; James McGowan, South Orange; Dennis Percher, Maplewood, Chairperson, South Mountain Conservancy with the unanimous support of the SMC Board of Trustees.