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New Jersey Must Consider Climate Change Risks in Recovery Programs

Ben Chou, Water Policy Analyst, Washington, D.C.

Extreme weather events in recent years have made states throughout the country rethink how investments in communities can make them more resilient to future storms and other types of natural disasters.  There is no clearer example of this than in New York and New Jersey, the two states most devastated by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.  Although it has been well over a year since this disaster struck, communities in both states are still in the process of recovering and rebuilding.  And the roughly $60 billion in federal disaster relief appropriated after Sandy has been instrumental in this effort.

  • Damaged homes along the Jersey Shore (Courtesy of Greg Thompson, USFWS)

As a condition of receiving funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), New York and New Jersey are required to develop an action plan for how they plan to use these funds.  They are also required to formally amend the plan every time they propose a major change.  My colleague, Theo Spencer, provided testimony this week on New York’s plan for using HUD funding.  And this week we also signed on to a letter from New Jersey Future, which includes recommendations for how New Jersey should utilize its next round of HUD funding.  

One of the recommendations is for the state to commit to making resilient investments in buildings and infrastructure to allow people and property to handle future storms.  As part of this process, New Jersey Future, NRDC, and the Regional Plan Association are asking the state to provide a comprehensive risk analysis tool, which can be used to evaluate risks to proposed projects from current and future flooding, including those related to sea level rise.  Such a tool would help to ensure that critical public dollars are not wasted on projects that may have to be modified or rebuilt because they failed to adequately address flooding and other climate-related risks during the initial planning and design processes.

This recommendation also is consistent with comments that NRDC submitted in January to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) on its plan for using the post-Sandy federal disaster funds provided to the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds.  These programs provide funding to communities to maintain, repair, and upgrade critical water and wastewater infrastructure, such as pipes, pumps, and treatment facilities.  They also will be used to help repair and rebuild severely damaged wastewater facilities, which released billions of gallons of untreated sewage into local waterways after Sandy struck. 

One of our primary recommendations was for the state to require project applicants to consider potential climate change risks when planning and designing projects.  We also urged NJDEP to develop flood risk guidance to help reduce the vulnerability of projects being proposed.  On the latter, I’m happy to report that the Department recently released Infrastructure Flood Protection Guidance and Best Practices, which applies the 500-year flood protection level to critical projects applying for federal and/or state funds.  This guidance directs projects to be constructed either outside of the 500-year floodplain when feasible or elevated above the 500-year flood level.

While this much-needed guidance is an important first step, consistent application of these guidelines will be essential for New Jersey communities to rebuild smarter, safer, and more resilient.  We look forward to working with NJDEP and organizations like New Jersey Future in this effort.

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David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Mar 10, 2014 10:57 pm GMT

When asked, post Sandy, about whether there was any connection between climate change and that storm Christie said this:  “… this is just, listen, this is a distraction. I’ve got a place to rebuild here and people want to talk to me about esoteric theories.”  (NBC story here

And according to this story from Inside climate news, “That philosophy has permeated New Jersey’s post-Sandy recovery effort”.  They just rebuilt as fast as they could, ignoring recent discoveries of accelerating sea level rise and the likelihood of increased extreme events.  “As a result, the state spent billions of federal aid dollars to rebuild boardwalks, businesses and houses almost exactly as they stood pre-storm“. 

“The coastal protection measures New Jersey has proposed, such as dune systems or flood gates, will defend communities only at current sea levels—not the 3.5 feet of sea level rise that New Jersey is expected to see by 2100. The state has partnered with six New Jersey universities to study how communities were flooded by Sandy, but that research will not consider how those communities, or others, may be affected under future climate scenarios.”

But things can change, right?  They already have.  New Jersey was once a leader on climate issues, until Chris Christie took office at the beginning of 2010. 

“Almost immediately, Christie closed the Office of Climate Change and Energy in the state’s DEP. He also cut off funding for the Global Warming Response Act, effectively rendering it a stagnant law, said Mauriello, who was replaced as NJDEP commissioner when Christie took office.

In 2011, Christie pulled the state out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, claiming the program wasn’t helping New Jersey cut its emissions. “RGGI does nothing more than tax electricity, tax our citizens, tax our businesses, with no discernible or measureable impact upon our environment,” the governor said at the time.”

 

 

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