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By: Yael Katzwer - Staff Writer
ESSEX COUNTY — Since 1999, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has been working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to look for solutions to flooding from the Rahway River Basin; in the past few months they have released 10 possible alternatives, or options, for flood abatement.
While the NJDEP and the USACE have not yet decided on a course of action, local officials and residents are publicly voicing their opposition to four of the proposed alternatives.
Both the South Orange Board of Trustees and the Maplewood Township Committee have recently passed unanimous resolutions against the construction of a dam. The proposed dam would cut across the west branch of the Rahway River to create an approximately mile-long, 110-acre detention basin that, when flooded, could take about four days to empty. The reservation is located in Maplewood, West Orange and Millburn, and borders South Orange.
According to the Rahway River Basin Flood Risk Management Feasibility Study, released to the public by the USACE on March 31, the Rahway River Basin has a drainage area of approximately 81.9 square miles and encompasses Essex, Union and Middlesex counties. The towns of Cranford, Springfield and Millburn suffered extensive flooding following Tropical Storm Floyd in September 1999, the April 2007 nor’easter and Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. During Tropical Storm Irene, Cranford’s water levels reached the 500-year floodplain; in some areas, entire first floors of buildings were submerged.
In an effort to help these municipalities, the NJDEP and the USACE have formulated 10 possible solutions to the flooding problem, outlined in the March 31 study.
Alternative 1 proposes raising the levee by 6 feet in the Lenape Park Detention Basin and completing approximately 15,500 feet of channel improvements through the Rahway River in Cranford, among other improvements. The Lenape Park is located in Cranford, Kenilworth, Springfield, Union and Westfield. This alternative would cost $91,123,800.
Alternative 2 proposes raising the levee by 6 feet in the Lenape Park Detention Basin, completing approximately 9,300 feet of channel improvements through the Rahway River in Cranford, and raising the levee and adding floodwalls to Nomahegan Park in Cranford, among other improvements. This alternative would cost $90,816,400.
Alternative 3 proposes dredging the Orange Reservoir — located in West Orange and owned by Orange — to increase storage capacity, and completing 15,500 feet of channel improvements throughout the Rahway River in Cranford, among other improvements. This alternative would cost $230,303,600.
Alternative 4 proposes modifying the Orange Reservoir outlet and completing 15,500 feet of channel improvements throughout the Rahway River in Cranford, among other improvements. This alternative would cost $68,871,200.
Alternative 5 proposes the construction of a dam — approximately 810 feet long and 75 feet high — just upstream of Campbell’s Pond in the South Mountain Reservation, and completing 15,500 feet of channel improvements throughout the Rahway River in Cranford, among other improvements. This alternative would cost $164,005,100.
Alternative 5a is nearly identical to Alternative 5, but includes the relocation of approximately 3,000 feet of Brookside Drive, among other improvements. This alternative would cost $174,019,300.
Alternative 6 proposes the construction of the dam in the South Mountain Reservation just upstream of Campbell’s Pond, among other improvements. This alternative would cost $108,472,500.
Alternative 6a is nearly identical to Alternative 6, but includes the relocation of approximately 3,000 feet of Brookside Drive, among other improvements. This alternative would cost $115,724,100.
Alternatives 7a and 7b propose modifying existing structures in Cranford to better withstand flooding by elevating them, the former being a 10-year plan and the latter a 100-year plan. Alternative 7a would cost $15,543,000 and Alternative 7b would cost $188,344,100.
After performing a benefit-cost analysis, only three alternatives had a positive benefit-cost ratio: Alternatives 4, 6 and 7a. Alternative 7a had the highest positive benefit-cost ratio, while Alternative 6 had the lowest positive benefit-cost ratio.
Due to these ratios, these three alternatives are considered “economically justified,” according to Rifat Salim, the project’s manager at the USACE, in an email to the West Orange Chronicle this week.
“Before any alternative could be selected as a Tentatively Selected Plan, further environmental evaluation would have to take place, including following the National Environmental Policy Act processes for evaluating environmental impacts,” Salim told the Chronicle.
Larry Ragonese, the press director for the NJDEP, further stressed that this is an ongoing process and that no decision has yet been made. He stressed that none of the alternatives are being rejected at this time.
“This is one phase of a long-term study,” Ragonese told the Chronicle in a phone interview this week. He added that the USACE first received approval to begin looking into the flooding issue in 2002. “No decision has been made on any of these alternatives yet.”
Of the 10 alternatives put forward, local groups, officials and residents are opposing Alternatives 5, 5a, 6 and 6a, as they do not want a dam to be built in the South Mountain Reservation for environmental, financial, economical and social reasons.
In an effort to deter the NJDEP and the USACE from choosing the alternatives that would result in a dam inside the reservation, community members and environmentalists have formed Save Our Reservation, an organization that is working in concert with the Rahway Alternative Flood Solutions Alliance and the South Mountain Conservancy. SOR is furthering its agenda by spreading word of the proposed dam and by circulating a petition.
“The petition asks the Army and the DEP to remove the dam alternative from the table,” Fred Profeta, chairman of SOR and former mayor of Maplewood, said in an email conversation with the Chronicle this week. “There is enormous public support in Maplewood, South Orange and Millburn.”
“Stop the proposed dam across the southern section of the South Mountain Reservation,” the petition on change.org reads. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in partnership with the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, is consideringa proposal to build an 880-foot, 70-foot high earthen dam for flood abatement on the Rahway River in Essex County. Construction of the dam and the associated 110-acre dry detention basin would irreparably damage our treasured century-old park.”
As of April 7, the petition had more than 3,850 signatures.
“Residents have a right to speak out,” Ragonese told the Chronicle. “Their voices will be heard and are already being heard.”
The Maplewood Township Committee passed a unanimous resolution at its April 1 meeting, saying that the township is against the dam, and asking the USACE to consider the other alternatives to it.
“I think we ought to take on the position that we, too, are opposed to the dam in the South Mountain Reservation,” Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca said at the April 1 township committee meeting. “We want to be sensitive to everybody’s flooding problem, but there are other alternatives to the dam.”
If the Mayors Council on the Rahway River, of which DeLuca is a member, endorses an alternative resulting in a dam, the mayor said he would be willing to pull out of the council.
On March 24, the South Orange Board of Trustees passed a resolution, “requesting abandonment of a proposed 880-foot long dam in South Mountain Reservation.” The resolution passed unanimously on the consent agenda.
The resolution reads, in part: “Now therefore, be it resolved that the board expresses its strong opposition to the two alternatives which require construction of an 880-foot long dam in South Mountain Reservation and requests that those alternatives be removed from consideration by the Army Corps and the NJDEP in their entirety.”
Mayor Robert Parisi of West Orange declined to comment on the proposed dam in the South Mountain Reservation at this time, and Mayor Robert Tillotson of Millburn could not be reached for comment.
Additionally, state Assemblyman John McKeon and state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, who represent the 27th Legislative District, penned a joint letter on March 26 to Bob Martin, the commissioner of the NJDEP, opposing the construction of a dam in the reservation. New Jersey’s 27th Legislative District includes the townships of Maplewood, Millburn, South Orange Village and West Orange, among others.
“As longstanding members of the New Jersey Legislature in Essex and Morris counties, we are well aware of the severe flooding that takes place within the Rahway River Basin, and wholeheartedly agree that effective measures must be undertaken to mitigate these occurrences,” McKeon and Jasey’s letter read. A copy of the letter was provided to the Chronicle by Gita Bajaj, spokeswoman for McKeon and Jasey.
With regard to the alternatives proposing the construction of a dam, the letter reads: “It is critical that these options be removed from consideration due to the environmentally destructive and costly nature of this project.”
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. stated in a March 28 press release that he, too, opposes the dam.
“The potential for flooding in Millburn, Cranford and other communities downstream the Rahway River is a serious issue and should be addressed. However, it can’t come at the expense of destroying a natural resource such as South Mountain Reservation and reducing the quality of life for Essex County residents,” DiVincenzo said in the release.
The main concern expressed by opponents of the dam is the environmental impact it would have.
“A 70-foot-deep South Mountain Reservoir, even if dry most of the time, would destroy vegetation, and many trails and roads in one of the few large, natural open spaces in central New Jersey,” Dennis Percher, chairman of the South Mountain Conservancy Board of Trustees, said in a March 6 press release. “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 this new reservoir, damming only the upper part of the west branch of the Rahway River, is likely to affect too little of the total river flow to prevent the most serious flooding downstream,” Percher continued. “The damage to the reservation would be irreparable without solving the flooding problems.”
Salim of the USACE stated, however, that damage to the reservation would result, if at all, from flooding, not the construction.
“The detention basin area will be largely unaltered during the actual construction of the project, so any impacts to the basin would depend on how often flood events occur,” Salim told the Chronicle. “This would be further evaluated should the dry detention basin be chosen as an alternative to be evaluated further.”
But the dam’s opponents have said that the construction of a dam would damage local flora and fauna irreparably.
“The dam would result in the loss of a vital habitat for plant and animal species, some of which are rare and already threatened in Essex County and other parts of northern New Jersey,” McKeon and Jasey wrote in their letter.
Profeta stated at the April 1 Maplewood Township Committee meeting that the NJDEP and the USACE have not yet conducted environmental-impact studies, but that he and others believe it is clear that the dam will negatively impact the environment in the South Mountain Reservation.
“It’s a little bit counterintuitive to narrow down options before you get to the environment, and yet everybody knows that the environmental damage from the dam is way more than an outlet in the Orange Reservoir,” Profeta said at the meeting.
According to Ragonese of the NJDEP in a phone interview with the Chronicle, should the alternatives be narrowed down to include one that proposes building a dam in South Mountain Reservation, “the USACE would have to do an intensive environmental study.”
In his press release, DiVincenzo stated that mosquitoes breeding in the detention basin could cause a problem.
Salim, the USACE’s project manager, stated that mosquitoes are not a concern.
“In a flood event, the dry detention basin would drain back to its normal condition within roughly 3.5 days, and in less time for smaller flood events,” Salim told the Chronicle. “Not only would the water not be stagnant, as some water will always be flowing through the dam, but mosquitoes generally require water to be standing for at least a week to become a breeding ground. This is another thing that would be more formally looked at during further evaluation should the dry detention basin be chosen as an alternative to be evaluated further.”
Additionally, the construction of a dam would potentially make Brookside Drive impassable. Alternatives 5a and 6a propose relocating approximately 3,000 feet of Brookside Drive, which runs through the reservation from Millburn to West Orange.
“Positioning the dam that far south makes it virtually impossible to reroute Brookside Drive so it could still be usable,” Dennis Percher told the Chronicle last week via email.
Additional concerns are that the construction of a dam could lower property values in the neighboring towns, and that traffic from its construction could result in less foot traffic, which would negatively affect local businesses.
“The market value of homes in the surrounding neighborhoods would be significantly diminished by the unsightly structure, replacing what was previously an area attraction,” McKeon and Jasey wrote in their letter.
“Construction of this massive project and removal of vegetation would take considerable time to accomplish. This will cause substantial congestion and economic loss due to its close proximity to Millburn Township’s downtown.”
Opponents are also concerned that the municipalities would have to shoulder a significant financial burden. While the municipalities would not be required to pay for all of the construction fees, municipal budgets are already tight in many places.
“Construction of a project like this, which would only take place after completion of the ongoing study — which still involves further necessary study — is generally cost-shared between the federal government and the local sponsor — in this case, the NJDEP — with the federal government funding 65 percent of construction and the local sponsor funding 35 percent,” Salim told the Chronicle. “It is up to the local sponsor how they would expect local municipalities to provide funds, if at all, to cover that 35-percent share.”
According to Profeta at the April 1 Maplewood Township Committee meeting, of the 35 percent to be funded by the state, 25 percent would have to be funded by the affected municipalities, constituting 8.75 percent of the total cost of the project.
“Projected costs are estimated to be upwards of $100 million, with federal law mandating that at least 35 percent of these be borne by local sources,” McKeon and Jasey wrote in their letter. “These deficits would prove too great for the municipalities to endure.”
Ragonese told the Chronicle that such figures are only projected at this point. “We’re not near that point yet,” he said. “That might be a factor down the road, if it is too expensive.”
Instead of pursuing a dam option, opponents want the USACE to seriously consider the other options, especially Alternative 4, which proposes modifications to the Orange Reservoir.
“We are proposing some channel corrections to reduce choke points, but the expansion of the channels are limited and it seems that detainment — holding back the water for a period of time so the surge of water in a severe storm is reduced and does not peak as quickly — is key,” Percher told the Chronicle. “The most cost-effective method with the least environmental impact is Alternative 4, which is the lowering of the water level in the existing Orange Reservoir before an anticipated large storm.”