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COMMENTARY: Bolster our flood defenses

NJ Hills Media // March 5, 2019

When faced with a problem, should we run away from it or confront it?

Last year was the wettest on record in New Jersey. More rain leads to more runoff, runoff that floods our towns and pollutes our waterways.

Fortunately, recently an overwhelming majority of New Jersey’s political leaders stood up to defend our most vulnerable communities against flooding and pollution.

Now, that legislation awaits the signature of Governor Phil Murphy.

New Jersey experienced record rainfall last year, with 25-50 percent greater than average. This contirbuted to a growing challenge sof polluted stormwater runoff.

No matter where it falls, stormwater frequently collects a toxic cocktail of chemicals, and flows unchecked or collected through our communities. Stormwater pollution in parking lots picks up residue oil and grease. On farms, it collects pesticides and herbicides.

To make matters even worse, existing sewer systems all over New Jersey are poorly equipped to handle rising rainfall. Stormwater overflows “combined” sewer systems on a regular basis – contaminating our drinking water and making our waterways unsafe for people and wildlife. Combined systems are typically found in our larger, older cities, and combine both stormwater and sewage. There are more than 21 in New Jersey.

Many New Jersey communities are vulnerable to flooding. Since the 1970s, more than 3,300 homes and businesses around our state have repeatedly flooded, according to Houston Chronicle analysis. Anyone who has smelled the rot of black mold or waded knee-deep in dark water, filled with one’s most precious belongings, understands that repairs are expensive. It cost $700 million to repair these damaged properties in New Jersey alone.

It’s long been clear that new jersey’s flood defenses are not up to par – that we need a smart new approach. The Clean Stormwater and Flood Reduction Act stands as a step forward to improve our defenses.

The act is straight forward. It allows – but does nto require – local communities most affected by stormwater and flooding to “opt-in” to establish a new stormwater utility. They would do this only if the local decision-makers and communities want it. Any such utility would be paid with a simple, reasonable fee on properties and businesses whose water-resistant surfaces – like parking lots and rooftops – contribute to dangerous stormwater flows. It’s a solution with a track record of success. Across the country, more than 1,800 communities in 40 states are already benefitting from similar flood defense systems. Yet, in a time of “alternative facts,” a few critics are misleading taxpayers about this legislation. Those critics are half right: there is record rain. But they are half wrong: this bill contains no taxes.

The fact of the matter is that each municipality – only if they want to – would set a flood defense fee based on the severity of flooding and pollution problems in their own community’s backyard. Nationwide, the average residential monthly flood defense fee costs about as much as a value meal at your favorite fast food restaurant.

Put simply: stormwater utilities work. That’s why there are so many of them. They let communities already benefit from, they have failed to offer one important thing: an effective solution of their own.

Governor Murphy has long been a leader on the environment. The Clean Stormwater and Flood Reduction Act stands as the next chapter of smart policy in a growing list of his notable environmental accomplishments.

While we can’t predict the future, as sure as the sun rises, the rain will also come. The question is: Will we be prepared for the storms ahead?

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