In an effort to investigate the ultimate cause of the flooding that caused massive damage during Hurricane Irene in late August, and determine what solutions are available, local officials recently toured the Rahway River Watershed.
Mayor Dan Aschenbach and Tom Hannen, a member of the Cranford Flood Advisory Committee and a candidate for Township Committee went to the mouth of the west branch of the river at the Orange reservoir and visiting areas in Millburn along the east branch of the river back down to Cranford.
"There has been a rumor that the Orange reservoir was breached but visual inspection indicated there were no issues with the dam nor spillway other than storm related velocity. The state DEP confirmed there was no problems at dam last week but seeing is believing," the mayor said. "The fact is that there is an enormous amount of drainage that enters the river in the South Mountain Reservation and travels downhill stopping first in Millburn and then the communities downstream."
While there was a wall of water that ended up impacting Cranford, Aschenbach said it seems clearer it was the result of the magnitude of the rain storm.
"But we still are looking at the cause and effect. Right now it is that the Rahway River is a massive drainage system for the Watchung Mountains and South Mountain area drainage with inadequate storage or protections for Cranford," Aschenbach said. "We have been informed that this storm was a record because of the amount of rain in a short duration. The engineering calculation is 8.7 inches of rain in a 24-hour period causes a 100-year flood. Irene was 9-12 inches in a 12-hour period.
Hannen said the importance of the tour was to look for solutions.
"For example, we did discover that the impacts were clearly south of the reservoir so that is a place we need to start. We knocked on doors in West Orange to ask about Irene impact but the impact was minor," Hannen said. "We now strongly believe there needs to be consideration by the engineers who will be tasked to look at this matter that a control structure be developed for the water falls prior to the river entering Millburn."
Hannen believes that new storage areas in the reservation should be considered to hold water back.
"Closer to Cranford, potential storage areas near the Hobarts Pass near Route 78 have to be on the agenda. A regional solution is needed," Hannen said. "We can't allow the hundreds of millions of dollars of damages to homes and businesses to happen again in Cranford and in communities like Millburn from the magnitude we faced during Irene."
Aschenbach said Cranford will have to prioritize the improvement can be made and look for a regional solution.
"We have the township engineer, Hatch Mott engineers, and the Army Corps of Engineers reviewing the potential of more capacity at Lenape Park including adding almost 25 acres to the park. Nomahegan Lake needs to be reviewed as well," the mayor said.
Andis Kalnins, a Republican candidate running for a seat of the Township Committee this year, said he agrees that the long term solution to Cranford's flooding problems need to come at a regional level.
"The amount of water coming into our town continues to increase. We need to see additional detention upstream to mitigate the flow from the over-development already in place and also a concerted policy of decreasing the impervious surfaces," Kalnins said, adding that the township must also continue to push for the completion of local projects.
"While these solutions will take State and Federal support to drive them to conclusion, We need to keep driving the projects that are within our control such as maintenance dredging and garnering state and county support to complete our local flood control projects," Kalnins added. "Through conversations with DEP and state officials our understanding is that some of the permitting requirements for maintenance type dredging may be eased. That would make it much more affordable."
Kalnins and his running mate, Lisa Adubato Nesi, circulated a recently opposing builder's remedy lawsuits, which is basically legal action taken by a property developer in an attempt to force a municipality to permit construction of housing units, citing the need for housing under Council On Affordable Housing regulations.
Officials also continue to discuss the town's ongoing struggle to prevent the construction of . Instead of housing, many are advocating for a bio-retention basin to be constructed on the site. Such a project could also provide "regional storage benefits to Kenilworth and Cranford."
To that end, Aschenbach met with Bob Martin, the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection on Oct. 5 in Trenton at the DEP's headquarters. The purpose of the meeting, the mayor said, was to provide the commissioner and Gov. Chris Christie with Cranford's strong opposition to the proposed development of the Birchwood Avenue site.
Although, according to Aschenbach, the DEP is a regulatory body and must remain neutral prior to reviewing actual permits, the purpose of the visit was to ensure the commissioner understood the significant flooding caused by the Casino Brook on Casino Avenue, North Union and Wadsworth. The township also wanted to make sure that state officials understand that the Birchwood property is in a flood plain and that any further development will only cause more drainage problems.
During his town hall meeting in Union County last month, the governor spoke briefly of Cranford's flooding issues and how the area was affected by Hurricane Irene. Christie acknowledged that the problem required attention.
"I provided the Commissioner with the facts about the flooding issues Cranford has faced and strongly urged that state not approve any permits," Aschenbach said, adding that "no permit applications have been filed by the
developer thus far."
During the meeting in Trenton, the mayor said, he also provided the DEP commssioner a conceptual engineering plan for a retention basin on the 15-acre site that could help with flood control in Cranford. The brook drains a 242-acre area in Cranford, Union and Kenilworth and makes its way to the Rahway River at Sperry Park. Storage of rain water at the Birchwood site would help mitigate local drainage problems but also provide more river capacity, the mayor said.
During the recent meeting in Trenton, Aschenbach said he provided the DEP commissioner with the next phases of Cranford's flood control plan. Cranford officials are hoping the DEP will recommend to the governor that the cost of the project will be inserted "into state legislation." The phases include 2B, phase 5 and a feasibility study of increasing the storage capacity of Lenape Park.
"While Cranford's main thrust of its flood control plan has to be regional in scope, and completing the plan the community had already started should be allowed to run its course with state and county assistance," Aschenbach said.
In order to address flooding on a regional issue, on Oct. 21 at 7 p.m., Cranford is inviting all the mayors of Rahway River communities, Union and Essex County legislative representatives, engineers and environmental commission representatives to a regional conference at Union County College on Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. to discuss the flooding issue and potential solutions.
"We have to stand tall as a community to put in place the protections for the future," Aschenbach said.