Eight months after Tropical Storm Ida, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration is preparing to implement emergency rules for new construction in certain flood-prone areas of New Jersey to help fortify the state as officials expect storms to become more frequent and volatile because of climate change, NJ Advance Media has learned.
Officials say the rules — expected to be introduced later this month — will modernize how the state Department of Environmental Protection regulates development in areas affected by inland flooding caused by stormwater runoff, as seen during Ida, as opposed to tidal flooding. The rules will use current and future rainfall rates instead of figures that are now two decades old and update how stormwater should be managed.
This will dramatically increase the areas included in those flood zones to help reduce where flooding does damage, according to environmentalists who hail the move as an important step.
But the rules could face pushback from developers, business groups, and some municipalities over concerns about cost and impact on construction projects.
Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, said in a statement the rules continue the Murphy administration’s “commitment to taking proactive measures to protect New Jersey residents, their property, and our communities from the continued imminent threat of flooding resulting from increased frequency and intensity of climate-influenced precipitation.”
Hajna added this will help guide development and redevelopment across the state, especially in areas still recovering from Ida last September and may be in line for federal funding.
Emergency rules are technically valid for only 60 days, but the DEP will also file a proposal to allow them to remain in place past that, according to a presentation the agency gave to environmentalists and other groups last week, a copy of which NJ Advance Media obtainedThe public will be allowed to comment on the rules during a 30-day period after they are introduced.
David Pringle of EmpowerNJ, a coalition of environmental groups, said “the science is demonstrating the areas that used to not flood at all are flooding now and areas that used to flood occasionally are now flooding more frequently.”
“We need the rules to reflect the latest science to better protect people and property,” Pringle said.
Specifically, the DEP will raise design flood elevations by two feet in non-tidal — or inland — flood zones, according to the agency’s presentation, according to a presentation the agency gave to environmentalists and other groups last week, a copy of which NJ Advance Media obtained.
The agency will also require using new precipitation projections when calculating design flood elevation and mandate stormwater runoff be calculated not just for today’s storms but future storms, according to the presentation.
This, officials say, is needed because climate change has caused increased rainfall, and the state’s current rules rely on rainfall data through only 1999. They don’t account for increases because of climate change or future conditions.
The rules do not apply to existing developments but only to future development and redevelopment projects, according to the presentation.
“As demonstrated by the extreme precipitation experienced statewide last summer, capped by the devastation wrought by the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida, the State’s reliance on data that looks backward from the year 1999 is no longer sufficient to ensure continued protection of our homes, communities , economies and people,” Hajna said.
Emergency rules are technically valid for only 60 days, but the DEP will also file a proposal to allow them to remain in place past that, according to the presentation. The public will be allowed to comment on the rules during a 30-day period after they are introduced.
Added Amy Goldsmith, state director of Clean Water Action: “They’re basically trying to create a safety zone. They’re not saying don’t build. But they’re telling you peril is greater.”
New Jersey has been hit by significant flooding in 10 of the last 21 years, according to the agency. Most recently, Ida dropped 10 inches of rain in parts of Essex, Hunterdon, Middlesex, and Union counties, leading to severe flash flooding, damage to homes across the state, and 30 deaths.
By the end of this century, the DEP said, heavy storms are projected to occur 200% to 500% more often and with more intensity.
“While we have to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emission, a certain amount of global warming is already baked in,” Pringle said. “While we’re getting a handle on emissions, we also have to deal with extreme weather. We need to do a better job keeping people out of harm’s ways.”
Goldsmith warned that “Idas and Irenes and Floyds are going to come faster and more furious and more devastating.”
“We need people to build better, higher, and move back in ways that are unprecedented,” she said.
The praise from environmentalists comes after Murphy has faced some criticism for his handling of climate change in New Jersey.
In April, EmpowerNJ said in a report that New Jersey is danger of missing Murphy’s goals to combat climate change if the governor’s own administration doesn’t stop fossil fuel projects it has approved and act more quickly to install regulations. The group has also taken Murphy’s administration to court to push for more action on climate change.
Goldsmith said “we are still waiting for rules on the emission side.”
“But this is important,” she said of the new rules. “And a job well done.”
Michael Cerra, executive director, the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said his organization was not briefed on the changes but noted some groups that were briefed were “concerned.”
“We will be reviewing the proposal ASAP,” Cerra said, without elaborating.
Republicans have repeatedly warned Murphy’s energy plans will drive up costs on New Jersey’s residents and have complained he hasn’t put a clear price tag on it.
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Brent Johnson may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @johnsb01.