October 22, 2020
New Jersey League of Conservation Voters (LCV)
PO BOX 1237
Trenton, NJ 08607
Chairman Robert Karabinchak and Committee Members
Assembly Special Committee on Infrastructure and Natural Resources
Re: New Jersey LCV Testimony on Stormwater Control and Reducing Nonpoint Source Pollution in the State’s Waterways
Chairman Karabinchak and Committee Members:
Hello, my name is Henry Gajda and I’m the Policy Director of The New Jersey League of Conservation Voters and I’m honored to be here today. New Jersey LCV represents democratic, republican, and independent voters who elect environmentally responsible candidates to state and local office, advocate for strong environmental policies and hold our elected officials accountable to safeguard the health of our communities, the beauty of our state, and the strength of our economy.
We know one thing is for sure – flooding is largely a result of the human-built environment and if left unaddressed, it will continue to get worse in NJ. In October 2018, according to Popular Science, the most important science policy issue in New Jersey is “Getting a Grip on stormwater.” As the nation’s densest state, with the most impervious coverage of any state – over 12%, we are in the midst of a major public policy, infrastructure, and environmental crisis that will be exacerbated by climate change.
On average, a New Jersey homeowner could expect to endure a severe 100-year storm during the period of their 30-year mortgage. Since 1901, the northeast has observed a 27% increase in 5-year maximum daily precipitation with more intense and frequent storms becoming the norm. It is not a coincidence that 2018 was the wettest year on record. All of this flooding and runoff is bad news for New Jersey.
Nearly 95% of New Jersey’s waters don’t meet water quality standards. The ecological integrity of many water bodies in the state are declining or diminishing including Lake Hopatcong, Greenwood Lake, and the Barnegat Bay. This year, dozens of NJ’s lakes had confirmed Hazardous Algal Blooms, with many more suspected, that are largely spurred by unmanaged polluted stormwater runoff dumping nutrients and sediment into the lakes. This provides an abundance of phosphorus that leads to the proliferation of hazardous, potentially toxic, blue- green algae. To know how big of an issue, one pound of phosphorous can lead to 1,100 pounds of blue-green algal scum. And Lake Hopatcong was smothered in it, effectively smothering an entire regional economy in its midst.
We know that the issues which arise from unmanaged stormwater aren’t just environmental problems – it hurts our residents and tax payers. If we take a quick look in New York, more than 60% of counties have had more than five flooding disasters since 2011 and have spent at least $37 billion in recovery costs. That number is expected to increase to over $55 billion in the next ten years. We can expect similar outcomes in New Jersey, but stormwater and flooding impacts doesn’t just stop at disaster recovery costs. A study in ScienceDaily by researchers at Ohio State University found that over a course of six years, lakefront homes on the shore of Lake Erie, Ohio fell an average of 11 to 17% due to reoccurring HABs, which limited use of the lake. Many lakes throughout New Jersey also experience reoccurring HABs, and only time will tell if lakefront property values in the state have the same fate.
So, who is responsible?
In a survey of more than 350 communities in 48 states released in November, researchers from the University of Maryland and Texas A&M found that 83% of communities experienced local inland flooding. Furthermore, 85% of communities experienced flooding outside of designated flood hazard areas. The report also highlights a major equity issue, the social costs of these urban flooding events disproportionately hurt lower-income communities that have the least resources. These communities are more likely to live in high-risk flood zones, but less likely to have flood insurance; while the secondary effects of these effects include snarled traffic that lowers productivity and incurs a loss of hourly wages. 70% of respondents believed that the lack of sufficient infrastructure improvements was a main contributor to urban flooding; and more than half of these respondents believed their communities failed to make proper infrastructure improvements to withstand increasing levels of rainfall. The Report concludes with a sobering finding – the federal government is not helping, so it is up to state and local governments to address this problem.
With all of these influences putting stress on our stormwater management infrastructure, it is compounded by the fact that New Jersey just has not maintained, upgraded, and replaced old, antiquated, and in some cases, failing stormwater management systems. For all of New Jersey’s water infrastructure, there exists a $40 billion investment need over the next 20 years. Stormwater infrastructure requires over $16 billion. With the Federal Government lacking, the onus is on states and local governments to raise the revenue to improve these systems and there is no dedicated funding source to address this massive need. How can the state address these problems? We need investment and leadership.
Options are rarely available for municipalities, counties or regional bodies to address widespread issues like stormwater management. However, in 2019, Governor Murphy signed the bipartisan Clean Stormwater and Flood Reduction Act. This permissive bill simply allows local or regional authorities to establish a stormwater utility to oversee, build and manage stormwater infrastructure. Similar to a water or sewer utility, a stormwater utility is a local assessment district that dedicates funding specifically and solely to address stormwater management problems. Localities decide whether to create a stormwater utility and this isn’t something new or a conspiracy. Stormwater Utilities are a best management practice in 41 other states, in over 1800 red, blue, yellow and green communities. It is not partisan.
Stormwater utilities are widely considered the most effective and equitable method to fund stormwater management infrastructure because it follows the polluters pay principle – if you pollute, you pay and will apply to those who don’t currently pay taxes. In NJ, the revenue raised from stormwater utilities is dedicated to stormwater management projects and shared services. Nationally, the average residential fee is just over $4.50 a month; the larger the region a utility covers, generally the lower the fee as a market of scale is reached. This fee is a down payment that supports good, local jobs, smart economic development, and improvements in the essential infrastructures we need to improve the quality of life of New Jersey residents.
The revenue raised must go to stormwater management projects, including a priority on green infrastructure. Green infrastructure is important because it doesn’t use big pipes or facilities, but rather it mimics the nature flow and hydrology of the land, to stop and control the water on sight, and let it percolate into the soil. There is a plethora of ancillary benefits, too; every dollar invested in green infrastructure can save $7 to $27 dollars in the future; it has been associated with better health outcomes, reductions in crime, and improved property values. Not to mention, the offset costs from moving expenditures off of municipal budgets is not only more efficient, in a time like COVID, it could help provide some additional flexibility that municipalities traditionally haven’t had.
While we can’t say that stormwater utilities are the end all, be all or the one solution to our stormwater management issues here in NJ, they are a smart, pragmatic and effective step in the right direction. Some ways to do so can include either legislatively or administratively at the DEP, we should create a small pot of money or dollar for dollar matching programs with caps that can be used by towns to conduct feasibility studies and technical analyses needed to inform the establishment of a utility. We need leadership. The state should be out front in support of establishing utilities, it can reduce costs for municipalities and in some cases reduce tax burdens, but more likely free up budget space to invest in other important priorities that our local governments face.
We, with our Flood Defense New Jersey Coalition partners of state and local nonprofit organizations work to protect our communities from damaging floods and harmful stormwater pollution. We are ready and able to help interested local governments move through the process of establishing stormwater utilities.
To find more information, visit FloodDefenseNJ.org.