Environmentalists urge Governor Murphy to act on long-stalled flood control rules

By: - August 29, 2022 2:07 pm

One year after Hurricane Ida resulted in deadly flooding, New Jersey remains stalled on new stormwater and flood hazard rules environmentalists say are needed to protect residents and properties. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Thursday marks the first anniversary of one of New Jersey’s deadliest floods, but the state remains stalled on new stormwater and flood hazard rules that even Gov. Phil Murphy has said are needed to protect residents and properties.

In January 2020, long before Hurricane Ida killed 30 people in New Jersey, Murphy ordered the new rules be implemented within two years. Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette also has repeatedly said New Jersey must modernize its flood standards. In May, the department said it would adopt the new rules in June.

Yet the old rules remain in place. The state’s inaction has driven environmentalists to launch a campaign urging Murphy to fast-track the rules, which would update flood maps and rainfall data last updated in 1999 and expand data back to 1899 to better inform regulatory decision-making.

At a public legislative hearing earlier this month, LaTourette suggested the holdup was due to “developers telling falsehoods and running around with their hair on fire because DEP wants to change a rule.”

The New Jersey Business and Industry Association wrote to Murphy in June to oppose the new rules, warning they would have “dire economic consequences on potentially thousands of projects.”

Under the new rules, new buildings and roads would have to be built outside current flood plains — or higher than current flooding levels. Standards for stormwater systems also would change, with new requirements that they retain flood water and slowly release it after large storms to minimize flooding.

Nineteen business and labor groups signed the letter, which stated: “No imminent peril exists.”

But environmentalists — including LaTourette — disagree.

At the Aug. 11 joint environmental hearing, LaTourette told legislators, “New Jersey is ground zero for some of the worst impacts of climate change. It’s the single greatest threat we face to our communities, our economies, our way of life. We have no choice but to build our resilience.”

Activists last weekend launched a website petitioning Murphy to take action.

Jim Waltman, executive director of the Watershed Institute, said rainfall data now used to predict storms and design stormwater systems is “terribly outdated.”

“In the last few decades, our storms have become larger and more dangerous, yet our current rules allow the builders to keep partying like it’s 1999,” Waltman said in a statement. “We need bold action to increase protections for the state’s residents, businesses, and environment.”

So-called 100-year and 500-year floods now happen every decade or so, said Jennifer Coffey, who heads the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions.

Amy Goldsmith, the New Jersey state director of Clean Water Action, warned the ongoing drought makes new rules especially urgent. New Jersey’s tropical storm activity typically occurs between August and late October.

“Drought means the ground is like cement and the rainwater can’t be absorbed,” she said in a statement. “As a result, when it does rain, flooding is worse. The combination of the two during hurricane season could be disastrous.”

Bailey Lawrence, a Murphy spokesman, said the governor “remains committed to bolstering the resilience of communities across the state.”

“We will continue to pursue modernized flood and stormwater regulations based on the best available science while providing ample stakeholder engagement opportunities to receive input from impacted parties,” Lawrence said in an email.

He did not offer a timeline for action.

Ida was the deadliest storm to hit the Garden State after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. Ida caused millions in damages, with federal authorities declaring half of New Jersey’s counties major disaster areas.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.