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Savvy Stormwater Strategies: How Planning at Every Level Can Help New Jersey Weather the Storm

June 25th, 2021 by

Who could oppose being savvy at something important?  And stormwater (i.e., runoff from heavy rain or snowfall that is not absorbed into the ground) is clearly something to take note of — ask anyone who has suffered flood damage or health impacts from polluted water.  However, most people are not well versed on the subject, which is why prudent planning is so important to protect the public and sustain healthy communities.

A four-speaker panel, during the session Savvy Stormwater Strategies: How Planning at Every Level Can Help New Jersey Weather the Storm, held at the 2021 New Jersey Planning and Redevelopment Conference co-hosted by New Jersey Future and the New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association, explored this issue from a regulatory,  research, municipal, and policy standpoint. The session provided practical guidance  on strategies to corral runoff and increase resiliency in the face of climate change, and identified important next steps to consider.

In a broad overview of a changing regulatory landscape, Gabe Mahon, Chief of NJDEP’s Bureau of NJPDES Stormwater Permitting and Water Quality Management reviewed the key requirements associated with municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permits that govern local drainage networks. Minimum control measures, such as controlling construction site runoff, mapping, pollution prevention, and public education reflect the basic requirements under the Federal Clean Water Act. Local ordinances cover both residential and non-residential projects and must satisfy DEP ‘s respective regulations, including Residential Site Improvement Standards (RSIS, N.J.A.C. 5:21) for major residential development projects as well as stormwater management rules for commercial and industrial uses.  (The RSIS streamlines the residential development process by providing one set of standards, thereby reducing costs of building housing and ensuring predictability in the review process.) In certain cases, such as freshwater wetlands and the Coastal Area Facility Review Act (CAFRA), DEP permit regulations apply directly.

NJDEP’s recent amendments to the stormwater management rule set an adoption deadline of March, 2021, however 60 percent of municipalities have yet to secure county approval for their ordinance. Mahon cautioned, “NJDEP is working with counties on this, and localities that have yet to act are encouraged to contact the Department to avoid potential enforcement actions.”

In an important paradigm shift, the new stormwater rule enhances the role for green infrastructure (GI). As opposed to traditional detention basins, which capture and meter out stormwater, often in a way that prolongs the impact of a heavy storm on surrounding waterways and roads, GI projects store, infiltrate, or filter stormwater in place.  The result is less stress on surrounding waterways, including reduced flooding, erosion, and scouring. GI also provides important ancillary benefits, such as recharging underground aquifers. (The new GI standards in the updated stormwater rule may be found at NJAC 7:8-5.3).  Going forward, detention basins and manufactured treatment devices (MTDs) will require a waiver from NJDEP.

Mahon also noted that amendments to the New Jersey: Protecting Against Climate Threats (NJPACT) program are planned for later in 2021. This will include the use of more recent rainfall projections reflecting 2020 data (i.e., in place of the 2000 baseline), which will help ensure that developments are truly built to last.

Chris Obropta, Extension Specialist at Rutgers Water Resources program, described a study in regional stormwater management planning for the North and South Raritan River. By analyzing an area on a watershed basis, both problems and potential solutions are easier to identify. Large differences in impervious coverage exist across watersheds, and given their interrelationship, well-placed GI investments can amplify benefits to multiple, neighboring localities. At least initially, the fastest approach is to identify GI opportunities in public spaces (e.g., schools, fire houses). GI  can reduce impervious area significantly, which is especially important in places  with high or medium density and commercial activity where it commonly ranges from 17% to 21%.

Michael Stanzilis, Mayor of Mount Arlington outlined the cultural shift that is necessary for municipalities to ensure their sustainability . The creation of a local advisory “Green Team”,  a comprehensive review of the local stormwater management code and related ordinances to mesh with DEP regulations, and a GI checklist for developers are good first steps. For example, the latter might include required implementation of rain gardens to offset development.  In the mayor’s view, “It is far better to proactively plan for stormwater needs than wait until the next crisis arrives.”

Finally, Ann Heasly, Program Manager for Policy and Planning at Sustainable New Jersey, described how public recognition of good deeds can help prompt others to act. Presently, 81% of New Jersey towns participate in Sustainable New Jersey’s certification program, representing nearly 90% of the state population, and 45% of those towns are certified as “sustainable”.  Certification, which is voluntary and free, identifies participating municipalities as leaders in areas such as land use and transportation planning (e.g., bike and pedestrian pathways.) Beyond tangible benefits such as cost savings (e.g., energy efficiency) and access to grants and expert advice, certified localities see progress on what is most important:  building to a better future.

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