Pequannock Blues, Hurricane Irene 2 Years On: Part III

By Christopher Lotito

Pequannock Blues, Hurricane Irene 2 Years On: Part III

In August of 2011, thousands of Pequannock residents were affected and displaced by the preventable tragedy of Hurricane Irene and the flooding that ensued.  Today, Pequannock News works to keep their story alive and make it available for those who have the power to change our situation and end repetitive flooding in Pequannock.

PSE&G trucks lined up to process the numerous
requests for utility service after
Hurricane Irene in August of 2011.
In Part I we discussed some of the organizations locally undertaking the mission to reduce and eliminate flooding in the Passaic River Basin.  In Part II we considered the progress that has been made on Christie's 15 Point Flood Mitigation Plan since Hurricane Irene.  Now in Part III, we'll examine a few of the potential fixes to flooding that have been killed off for one (political) reason or another.

Potential Flood Fixes Graveyard:

  • Description: Funding to complete real dredging and shoal removal along the rivers.  This means putting machines in the river and pulling out sand, dirt, tires, and whatever else is down there.
    Benefit: Significant.  The bed of the river has become increasingly shallow over the 77 years since the Morris Canal was officially abandoned.  Removing accumulated silt and shoals would put the water back where it belongs, in the river, and also serve to reduce the risk of snags forming as trees, branches, leaves, and debris accumulate in the now shallow waters.  As a further benefit, deeper waters are cooler waters and NJ could save funds it currently invests into addressing the occasional fishkills that occur as a result of high river temperatures.
    Cost: Not as much as you'd think...  It's going to cost money to put machines in the river, to remove the sediment, then to move the sediment to a location where it can be stored / dumped without ending up back in the river after the next tropical storm.  However, townships throughout the region have started to acquire some of the equipment as a method to reduce their costs (allowing their own staff to complete related work, rather than having to bid the job to a private firm).  Even if a township does not own dredging equipment, since any dredging project should be a regional effort, chances are some town will be able to provide use of that equipment at a reduced cost.
    Cause of Death:  Murdered by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection's obstructionist agenda.  With the NJ DEP, we're lucky we're even allowed to put boats in a body of water anymore.  It's a fact: in their zeal to protect the environment, they've identified the greatest threat as the human population and done their best to eliminate our presence via more red tape than is almost conceivable.  Consider this 2011 article, one of several, in which Pequannock and other townships pressured the DEP to issue the necessary permits to complete simply the work of removing fallen trees from the river:  -- In that situation, the DEP took an obstructionist tact, delaying work extensively by issuing demands such as multiple photos of each tree scheduled to be removed from multiple angles.  It got so bad, that the Pequannock Township Council wrote to the Governor for help, but by the time the permits were issued it was too late and Hurricane Irene occurred.
  • Description: Plans to repair the Pequannoc Spillway and Pompton Feeder Dam, removing 100 years of sediment accumulated behind them to make room for the water they're supposed to retain.
    Benefit:  Locally significant.  Floods are not just water, they're volume of water, over distance, over time.  Maintaining these two dams the way they're supposed to have been for the past 100 years would restore the flood storage capacity they provide, holding water that could be in our homes upstream while downstream drains to make room.
    Cost:  Negligible (compared to most of the alternatives and other suggested projects).  This is a tiny project, digging out debris and soil from the riverbed at a mere 2 locations with just 4 points of entry into the water (maybe only 3).  -- Not to mention, the money used to restore these dams should by rights be taken from the money the NJ DEP has saved over the past 100 years of not bothering to complete any maintenance work on them.  They've had the funding for that, they've just used it elsewhere.
    Cause of Death:  Ignorance / Disinterest.  The Dam Safety Management department has no interest in maintaining, inspecting, or repairing these dams because they pose no threat to human life.  That's correct, I have correspondence indicating that no safety inspections were being performed on these dams until the recent feasibility study performed by Civil Dynamics.  Meanwhile, local residents do not know enough about to these 2 structures tucked way back in the woods to mount a coherent public education campaign to pressure the State or County into maintaining them properly.
  • Description: Meaningful discussion or even funding to consider channelizing the existing riverbeds or else constructing a flood tunnel or other bypass channel or spillway to do something with the floodwaters other than send them through residents' homes.
    Benefit:  This is the silver bullet that the DEP insists does not exist, a permanent solution to flooding in the Passaic River Basin.  If we completed a massive flood mitigation project, by definition, it would be overbuilt and over-designed to ensure that we never have to deal with flooding again.
    Cost:  Massive.  However, worth comparing to the cost of buyouts and other mitigation work that is less worthy and being carried out instead.  How about the loss of taxable residential properties (and even commercial tax ratables or large scale development opportunities)?
    Cause of Death:  Discordant organizational philosophy.  How's that?  Well, FEMA the NJ DEP, and others have decided that the only remedy for flooding that they will willingly fund (unless forced to do otherwise at the point of a Governor's decree during an election year) is to buyout homes in the floodplain.  Not your home (probably), not my home, but someone's home, somewhere.  Why do these organizations feel this way?  Well for one thing, none of them are in the floodplain, so that has to count for something.  Honestly, it's the organizational equivalent of telling people that if there's a flood, it's their fault for being in a flood to begin with.  I can't give you an answer as to why this philosophy is the case within the bounds of this article.  I have been told by insiders that a number of higher ups in the NJ DEP are rampant militant environmentalists who have no problem moving entire communities out of the way to save some wildlife (though I have no way of proving this...other than the fact that this is what they are doing).  I can tell you that the Passaic River Coalition and other private lobbyist groups like it are able to apply for and have received funding from the government, which comes from our taxdollars, to pursue their own political agendas and that this fact makes the entire buyout system suspect.
There are no conclusions as many of our readers look out the window at the falling rain right this moment and wonder if they shouldn't start moving things upstairs.  The only reasonable conclusion available is that we in Pequannock are stuck in a supremely ill-conceived scenario where we have dutifully paid into the flood insurance program for decades and now that the money is needed, funding is available only for one specific remedy for political purposes (buyouts) which the vast majority of homeowners are not eligible for and do not support.

I leave you with this, where on June 3rd 2013, the NJ State Legislature has pointed out that it is no longer acceptable for the NJ DEP's flood hazard maps to be 15 years out of date, nor for the NJ DEP to require developers and others to use their out of date maps rather than the more up to date FEMA ones when applying for permits:  -- Of course, you know, that's just if it passes the vote.

  Christopher Lotito is a member of the Pequannock Historic District and Open Space Commissions as well as the author of  "Torrent," a book about flooding in the region.  Lotito's personal mission is to reduce new taxes, drastically reduce flooding, and preserve more green spaces for our children.  Christopher Lotito Profile

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