Officials from Cranford, Union, Springfield, Winfield and Millburn met late last week to discuss possible solutions to flooding issues along the Rahway River Watershed. Although a number of possible remedies were offered, one thing was unanimous: the situation must be addressed from a regional perspective.
The Rahway River Watershed Conference on Flood Control was hosted by Cranford at Union County College on Springfield Avenue and began with an address by Mayor Dan Aschenbach, who showed an audience of more than 100 concerned residents pictured of flood damage that occurred in the wake of Hurricane Irene in late August.
"It's a regional battle that we need to focus on," Aschenbach said.
Leo Coakley, a civil engineer with the firm Hatch Mott MacDonald, discussed exactly what happened during the storm that caused such devastating flooding.
"It's plain that the rain did not stay in Spain," Coakley mused, explaining that an "extended period of rain" in the weeks preceding Hurricane Irene left the ground saturated. The 18 inches of rain that fell on top of that during Irene made it impossible for the ground to absorb the rainwater.
Coakley said the east and west branches of the Rahway River join near Route 280 and come down through Rahway, Springfield, Cranford and other parts of the county. The two branches peaked at about 2 a.m. the night of the hurricane. He stressed, however, that there was no dam break during the flood.
Jodi McDonald, the chief of Flood Risk Management and Ecosystem Restoration for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been studying the flooding problems throughout the watershed, especially in Cranford. She said the Army Corps is looking at the state of the levies throughout the water, as well as flood water "storage" options, such as the Lenape Basin in Cranford.
According to Coakley, there are a number of solutions that the towns along the Rahway River Watershed can consider in terms of flood remediation. The first idea involves increasing and managing flood water storage areas within the flood basin. Coakley said municipalities have to begin looking at what can be done to prevent flooding. Some measures, he added, should be addressed when new construction or redevelopment takes place.
Another flood remediation measure the engineer suggested involves improving the condition of bridges along the Rahway River Watershed. Projects such as modifications to the Route 82 bridge have fallen by the wayside, he said.
"Anyplace you eliminate flooding by letting more water through would help flooding, but then you have to look downstream, so that the water has a place to go," Coakley said.
An integral part of flood control also involves examining the levies and flood walls, Coakley added.
'Levies can be a means of keeping flood water out of a residential area," Coakley said, adding that you also have to couple these projects with efforts downstream so that "the water has someplace to go."
Raising homes in flood-prone areas was also discussed, along with the possibility of getting FEMA funding for such projects.
"No one thing will solve the problem, but maybe if they're combined, it will help," Coakley said. "This area is still a flood plain."
On of the main objectives of the conference was to create a Mayor's Council on Rahway River Watershed Flood Control, involving mayors from municipalities along the Rahway River. The council includes: Mayor Dan Aschenbach of Cranford, Mayor Sandra Haimoff of Millburn, Mayor Joe Florio of Union, Mayor Hugh Keffer of Springfield, Mayor Margaret McManus of Winfield, Mayor Kathi Fiamingo of Kenilworth and Mayor Rick Proctor of Rahway.
During last week's conference, Florio said dams upstream of Union County should be built higher to prevent flood water from running down into towns such as Union and Cranford.
"We think if those dams upstream are raised, it will help," Florio said. Union, in fact, sent a number of public works crews to Cranford following the flood, to help residents clear more than 70,000 tons of debris from flood-damaged homes.
Robert Tillotson, Deputy mayor of Millburn said his town has formed a subcommittee to study the flood damage. Despite the fact that a retaining wall has been built following Hurricane Floyd, the recent storm, he said, "flooded the heart of our downtown."
"I don't think we're ever going to be able to guarantee all people that they're not ever going to flood, especially after a storm like this," Tillotson said, also indicating that some measures do need to be taken to prevent as much future storm damage as possible.
During a Mayors' Roundtable discussion at the conference, local officials agreed that bipartisan relationships among the municipalities along the Rahway River must remain strong, particularly where issues involving flood prevention are concerned.
"The idea that we're going to approach this flood basin on a regional basis already has its foundation in the relationships here," Springfield Mayor Hugh Keffer said.
Robert Kirkpatrick, Springfield's township engineer, said dealing with the issue of flooding is going to take the cooperation and sacrifice of every town along the river, in terms of financial commitment and support for whatever projects arise.
"We all want to anticipate that there's a goal to achieve and there's a road to it. My experience has shown that there's going to be a lot of twists and turns in that road - if we can even get to it," Kirkpatrick said. "This effort has to be one that everybody is involved in, and everybody is going to have to make a sacrifice."
Florio said officials and engineers surveyed the 41-square-mile Rahway River flood basin, determining that slowing the flow up water from farther upstream wold be key to helping municipalities that commonly flood.
"If you can control and slow the flow of water coming down through Union, Millburn and Springfield, it's gotta help Cranford," he said.
Cranford Township Engineer Richard Marsden said there is "no one cure" to reduce or even prevent future flooding. Locally, Cranford is in the midst of a costly, five phase flood prevention program. The first two phases carried a $9 million price tag, according to Aschenbach. The work included a storm sewer and a pumping station that was constructed shortly after Hurricane Floyd caused massive flooding in the township.
"We still have some local projects that we need to finish, but we sort of ran out of money locally," Aschenbach said during the conference.
Officials also agreed that state and federal funding are a must if municipalities are to take on any kind of flood remediation projects. To that end, Keffer suggested getting local legislators involved along with the NJ Department of Environmental protection.
"For every federal dollar spent, they have to make sure that there is a benefit to the nation of at least one dollar," Jodi McDonald said, explaining that the federal government must justify to Congress exactly how funding will be used, before an approval can take place.
In the coming weeks, the Mayor's Council is expected to conduct its first meeting to begin discussing the best way to begin addressing the flood issues along the Rahway River.
"This is a monumental task," Kirkpatrick said.
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