Tool to ease flooding goes unused in New Jersey

It is an approach adopted by at least 40 states as a way to fund needed improvements to control storm runoff — especially in fiscally strapped locales. But not in New Jersey.

Cars are pictured sitting in Ida's floodwaters

Major flooding in the wake of Tropical Storm Ida has given communities a good reason to reconsider stormwater utilities. (NJ Spotlight)

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

Two years ago, a new law gave local governments a tool to manage stormwater runoff, then and now considered the biggest source of pollution in streams, rivers and bays, not to mention a major cause of flooding.

Touted by advocates as a sensible approach to deal with what authorities say is a $16 billion problem in New Jersey, the law allows municipalities and other entities to set up stormwater utilities to impose fees on parking lot and other impervious surfaces.

It is an approach adopted by more than 1,500 communities in at least 40 states across the nation as a way to fund needed improvements to control storm runoff — especially in fiscally strapped locales. But not in New Jersey.

“We don’t have any takers yet,’’ acknowledged Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette, when asked about the lack of any such utilities in the state last week. He blamed the non-response on a variety of factors, including the difficulty in getting people to focus on problems that do not directly impact them.

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Tropical Storms Ida and Henri may change perceptions, but whether their widespread flooding is  enough to convince local officials to take a hard look at setting up stormwater utilities remains to be seen.

An uphill battle

It took a decade to push the utility bill through the Legislature over opposition from business lobbyists and many Republican lawmakers who dubbed the bill a “rain tax.’’ Other critics argued it would add another layer of bureaucratic expense at the local level.

“We are glad local governments are responsive to the high cost of living in New Jersey,’’ said Ray Cantor, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. “There is a sensitivity that residents are overtaxed.’’

When storms occur, rain runs off roads roofs, and parking lot into stormwater sewer systems, carrying debris, bacteria, and toxic chemicals into waterways. The recent storms also caused widespread flooding, mostly in North Jersey, where up to nine inches of rain fell in some areas.

“Two weeks ago, we got hit with a hell of a rain tax,’’ LaTourette said, alluding to the costs of widespread flooding across the state from Ida.

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Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) agreed with the commissioner on why towns haven’t yet created a stormwater utility. “It hasn’t been a crisis until Ida,’’ he said. “No one knew how big a problem is storm runoff.’’

Second look at stormwater utilities

With local governments facing fiscal constraints and a new recognition of the extent of the problem, Smith said he expects more local communities will begin to look at utilities as helping solve storm runoff problems in an equitable way.

Daniel Van Abs, a former DEP water expert and an associate professor at Rutgers University, said that is already happening with some communities looking to issue studies considering the feasibility of stormwater utilities.

“It will increase the urgency of doing something,’’ said Van Abs, citing the 21 municipalities with combined sewer systems where untreated sewage and stormwater runoff are discharged into waterways during times of heavy rain.

Van Abs never expected many municipalities would choose to create stormwater utilities, suggesting in an opinion piece in NJ Spotlight News in 2018 that no more than 30 to 40 would be established by 2040 in New Jersey.

A local solution

Stormwater utilities will not solve the state’s major flooding problems, like the periodic flooding of the Raritan River inundating towns like Manville, according to Van Abs. It is more suited for localized flooding problems in communities like Princeton, which is looking into creating a stormwater utility.

Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, said he believes more communities are looking into setting up such utilities in the wake of Ida.

“With Ida, this is the new normal,’’ he said. “Now people are asking what can we do to fix it. Their eyes are open and they are now paying attention.’’

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