SCOTCH PLAINS — In recent years, New Jersey has been battered by an alarming number of catastrophic weather events known as 100-year storms (like Hurricane Floyd in 2007, Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Tropical Storm Gordon in 2018, and most recently, Hurricane Ida in 2021). These storms, which have been steadily increasing in regularity, have been known to cause massive flooding and have wrought hundreds of millions of dollars in damage across the state. Now, state and local officials alike are working to find a new solution to an age-old problem: in a state as densely populated and built up as New Jersey, where exactly is all of this water supposed to go?
On Thursday, Congressman Tom Malinowski (D) met with Scotch Plains residents and local officials to talk storm-water management, planning and mitigation at a well-attended public town hall held at the Shady Rest Country Club. During his visit, the congressman also toured flood zones and spoke with several residents who were impacted by Hurricane Ida to get a better understanding of the challenges that his constituents face.
Rep. Malinowski toured the Winding Brook and Bayberry sections on the south side of town and talked with homeowners affected by the flooding before making his way to the downtown district to meet with several local business owners at Black Drop Coffee on Park Avenue. His final stop was the Scotch Plains portion of the Green Brook; the water runs adjacent to Route 22.
“The problem is that these extreme events are occurring more frequently than ever before. I’ve lived in Scotch Plains since 2008, and since then, my house has been flooded twice. I’ve lost trees and power on multiple occasions, and sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence here in town,” said Scotch Plains Mayor Joshua Losardo.
Rep. Malinowski, whose Hunterdon County home also was damaged by Hurricane Ida, said New Jersey’s weather patterns have definitely shifted in recent years.
“We all remember the images from [Ida],” Rep. Malinowski said. “People were flooded out of their homes, police and firefighters were rescuing people from these incredibly dangerous situations, there was water and debris everywhere… it was a mess. We’re now buying boats for first responders in central Jersey. That should tell you something about how serious we are taking this.”
In addition to an increase in regularity, Rep. Malinowski said, New Jersey’s weather patterns are ramping up in severity.
Hurricane Ida, for example, claimed 30 lives in New Jersey alone, with five of those occurring in Union County.
Although recent storms have personally affected thousands of New Jersey residents, these extreme occurrences are not purely anecdotal.
In 2021, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection released two studies by the Northeast Regional Climate Center, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) partner, confirming increases in precipitation across New Jersey over the last 20 years, and projecting further increases in precipitation intensity through the end of this century due to climate change.
According to the studies, average precipitation levels across the state have already risen across the board. “The precipitation expectations that presently guide state policy, planning and development criteria, and which rely upon data obtained through 1999, do not accurately reflect current precipitation intensity conditions. Extreme precipitation amounts are 2.5 percent higher now than the 1999 data suggests, and some parts of the state have seen a 10 percent increase above the outdated data,” the studies note.
In addition, the studies continue, precipitation levels are expected to increase by more than 20 percent from the 1999 baseline by 2100. Projected changes will be greater in the northern part of the state than in the southern and coastal areas, with some northwestern counties seeing even higher increases.
Although floodwater mitigation plans have existed at the state and local levels for years, work has been fairly slow to progress across the board.
Part of the challenge, Mayor Losardo said, has been securing the necessary state funding needed to enact any real change for the area.
“The work is expensive. We need the financial support of the state and federal government. We also need the support of neighboring communities to address the problem,” Mayor Losardo said, noting that he has been working with nearby municipal leaders to find local solutions.
At the state level, however, a storm-water management project nearly 50 years in the making is finally starting to come together.
The Green Brook Flood Control Project, which entails numerous flood walls, levees, channel diversions, widening projects and retention basins throughout the Green Brook basin (which stretches across parts of Somerset, Union and Middlesex Counties) was originally conceived in 1973 after a flash flood killed six people and caused irrevocable damage to the area.
Again, Rep. Malinowski said, the holdups have mostly been financial in nature.
All of that changed in January of this year when the Biden Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers announced the appropriation of $496 million in disaster supplemental funding to complete the project.
The Bound Brook portion of the project, which involved construction of levees next to the Green Brook, Middle Brook and Raritan River, was completed in 2016. Since then, the project has progressed with the construction of levees along the Green Brook in Middlesex Borough and Green Brook Township.
To date, the federal government has covered approximately $261 million of the project’s anticipated $855 million cost.
Although the Green Brook improvements should help to ease some of the potential impacts from future storms, Rep. Malinowski said local municipalities will need to work together to find a more immediate solution.
“In most cases, the problems are downstream and the solutions are upstream, and that can cause some political issues,” Mr. Malinowski said. “It’s going to take a lot of cooperation to get this done the way we want to.”
Though mitigation and management plans are all well and good, Mr. Malinowski said the recent surge in storm activity likely points to a larger and more intangible problem — the planet is starting to fight back.