Biden signs legislation that makes Rahway River flood mitigation a priority

File Photo
Following Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, downtown Cranford was under water.

WASHINGTON, DC — President Joe Biden signed federal legislation on Dec. 28 that includes provisions to make the Rahway River flood mitigation study a national priority. Through the efforts of Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, and U.S. Reps. Donald M. Payne Jr. and Tom Malinowski — as well as through the consistent work of the Mayors Council Rahway River Watershed Flood Control — language was inserted into the 2022 Federal Water Resources Development Act to move the Rahway River flood mitigation plan forward. Section 203 states that the study should be “expedited and proceed to preconstruction” for flood risk management in Section 336 of the Water Resources Development Act. 

The 2022 Water Resources Development Act was included in the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023. The WRDA, signed biennially, authorizes federal flood control, navigation and ecosystem improvements. 

The state of New Jersey is now required to sign on to be a co-sponsor of the next phase of the study to move the project ahead.

Leaders and residents in Union and Essex counties have long been urging officials to finalize the Rahway River flood-mitigation plan and pass U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funding for construction of Rahway River flood mitigation.

The Mayors Council Rahway River Watershed Flood Control, which was organized after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, consists of mayors, township committee members, engineers and township administrators serving communities along the Rahway River and has been working with the USACE and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to come to a solution to protect residents.

In January 2022, the USACE announced its allocation of funds of $1.5 million to complete the flood protection feasibility study it had started after Tropical Storm Irene. The USACE previously evaluated 21 alternatives and even sent the entire evaluation to the New England Army Corps office, which is known for its expertise on dams. 

“Over the past few years, over $6.5 million of federal and state funds have been used on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers evaluation of a regional flood mitigation plan for the upper portion of the Rahway River,” former Cranford Mayor Dan Aschenbach, who serves as spokesperson for the Mayors Council Rahway River Watershed Flood Control, said in a press statement. “Hydraulic and hydrologic engineers, environmental analysts, and economists have scoured the possibilities with 18 different alternatives weighed and assessed for their costs and benefits. Politics had nothing to do with the lack of construction progress. The studies undertaken by the nation’s experts have taken time because the solutions are challenging. 

“While criticism about how long this has taken is understandable, if it was easy, the work would have been done,” Aschenbach continued. 

Since 2013, 19 different alternatives to mitigate flooding have been evaluated, and several additional options are now under consideration, all in an attempt to stem the flooding from the Rahway River during severe weather conditions.

The Rahway River flows through Union, Essex and Middlesex counties. Surrounding communities, especially Cranford and Springfield, have suffered severe, widespread flooding on numerous occasions in recent decades — including during Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999 and Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 — displacing residents and causing more than $100 million in property damage.

The favored flood mitigation plan is Alternative 4A. In this plan, several days before the peak of a storm, operators of the Orange Reservoir in the South Mountain Reservation would begin to release flow downstream with the expectation that the flow would be out of the Rahway River system when the peak of the storm comes. This would lower the river elevation downstream and permit Cranford in particular to deepen the riverbed and at points widen the river providing significant increase in river capacity, ultimately keeping more of the river in its banks. 

“All eight communities involved in the Mayors Council Rahway River Watershed Flood Control effort along the river supported what was known as Alternative 4A,” Aschenbach said. “A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommendation was about to be made to the U.S. Congress in 2019 to fund construction, only to have that plan sent back for review because the U.S. chief engineer was concerned about using weather forecasts to release storm water from the Orange Reservoir prior to peak storm conditions. The rejection was made without a local study but was based on a conservative national perspective about using forecasts. Subsequent to the rejection, several U.S. Army Corps plans in other parts of the United States have been approved using storm forecasts. Other federal water control agencies and reservoir operators also use forecasting.

“With the U.S. Army Corps rejection, they insisted that any flood storage absent the use of forecasts would have to include either lowering the Orange reservoir by dredging or heightening the dam,” he continued. “The Mayors Council Rahway River Watershed Flood Control still supports the Alternative 4A plan, which is now called the Orange Bypass. The Orange Bypass plan is being reviewed as a possible state and local project. The other alternatives, such as reservoir dredging and channelization, have not yet been fully evaluated and are expected to be evaluated next.”