At their first meeting, the Mayors’ Council on Rahway River Watershed Flood Control explored political solutions to regional flooding problems.
Mayors of five towns that contain sections of the Rahway River met in Millburn along with their town engineers as well as engineers from Essex and Union County.
The discussion was regional in scope. Officials looked to share the cost of changing infrastructure in their towns and surrounding municipalities to lessen the impact of future flooding. They discussed how the area’s geography and patterns of dense land development impacted water flow. And, perhaps most importantly, they looked at how they could collectively exert political will to get funding and attention.
We are always constrained by finance and time,” Cranford Mayor Daniel Aschenbach said. “The ideal thing would be to find initiatives that would regionally solve the problem.”
Aschenbach added a note of urgency: “This is the end of November. The further we get away from the flood, the less this becomes a priority.
Springfield Mayor Hugh Keffer echoed the need for regional solutions and said that officials also need to set regional standards for those solutions. He said it was important to decide if infrastructure such as dykes be built or rebuilt to 75 year or 100-year standards, as those standards will decide the price tag.
“We have to decide what we want to build to,” Keffer said. “You can tell an engineer what you want and he’ll build it. He won’t tell you what it will cost—that’s the hard part.”
Keffer said understanding how development has impacted is key to controlling future floods.
“What would have met the standard 30 years ago will not work now,” Keffer said.
Union Mayor Joseph Florio and Millburn Mayor Sandra Haimoff noted that statewide regulations constrain the scope of repairs.
“If we’re saying we’re doing something bigger than 75 years, you’re going to have to deal with the DEP,” Florio said.
Leo Coakley, a consulting engineer for Cranford, informed the mayors of his work with the Army Corps of Engineers, who are conducting a survey of water flow and drainage of the Rahway River and its tributaries in and near Cranford. The Corps, Coakley said, are looking at causes and effects of changes to waterways and areas where water collects. He emphasized that the Army Corps is working with a strict cost benefit ratio, and said that it was up to elected officials to advocate the human toll of the storm.
“A hardship on people makes a community move,” Coakely said. “The Corps looks at dollar benefits. They don’t look at heartache.”
Coakely said engineers in Cranford are urging the engineers to include nearby reservoirs in their study, particularly the Orange reservoir in the city of Orange.
“That’s the big one,” Coakely said. “That’s the one we have the most hope for benefit.”
Stephanie Gidigbi, an Aide from the Mayor of Orange’s office, said Orange officials were amenable to working with the Council to deal with flooding issues. In addition, she urged the Mayors to enlist their Washington representatives’ help. She recommended requesting a meeting with the Corps, commissioning a study and pursuing down the line funding. She said that the Army Corps' annual funding levels are set in February, and that it was critical for the Mayors to act before then to impact projects.
Springfield Assistant Township Engineer Sam Mardini recommended pushing buyout programs for homeowners with properties near flood zones. While Proctor said Rahway had enjoyed success with such buyouts, other officials and engineers noted that the programs required willing sellers to be successful.
Shortly after the meeting, Keffer said that one piece of information revealed during the meeting particularly stuck out for him; the timing of funding for the Army Corp.
“We put pressure on them and they get funding,” Keffer said, adding: “that’s what the political process adds to the value of this project.”