FEMA: Proposed NJ Stormwater Rule Isn’t Strong Enough

FEMA agrees with us that New Jersey's proposed green infrastructure rule won't protect New Jersey communities from flooding.

Late last year, New Jersey proposed to require development sites across the state to use green infrastructure to manage polluted runoff. While we support green solutions to stormwater management, NRDC and our partners argued that the proposed rule didn’t go far enough to protect New Jersey communities from water pollution and flooding. (You can read our detailed comments, which NRDC submitted with 15 other NJ-based groups, here.) It turns out that FEMA—the Federal Emergency Management Agency—agrees with us. 

Through a New Jersey public records request, we obtained all of the public comments that were filed on the proposed rule. That’s how we learned that FEMA, like NRDC, is “troubled” by key aspects of the proposal.

First, FEMA found “the absence of restrictions in the increase in runoff volume post-development” to be a “significant deficiency” in the proposal. NRDC and our partners had also called out New Jersey’s failure to adopt a volume-based stormwater management standard as a critical flaw in the proposed rule.

FEMA’s concern about runoff volumes is worth taking seriously. As noted in its comment letter, FEMA has provided $2.7 billion in post-flood disaster support to New Jersey through the Public Assistance and Hazard Mitigation Grant Programs, along with an additional $275 million in post-disaster investments in the state’s riverine and urban watersheds. These figures don’t include Hurricane Sandy relief.

As a result, FEMA knows better than most the harm that can result when land development isn’t required to take steps to avoid sending large amounts of storm runoff downstream. As stated in the comments, “FEMA is particularly concerned about runoff volume and how that exacerbates existing riverine and urban flooding.”

The FEMA comment letter also echoes our concern about New Jersey’s proposal to eliminate the requirement for development sites to use “nonstructural strategies,” like conserving natural landscapes and using native landscaping, to reduce runoff. FEMA notes that these strategies “have been integral” to stormwater management in New Jersey for the past 15 years.

Green infrastructure, which includes techniques like green roofs and rain gardens, offers many benefits. But in FEMA’s own words, it “does not by itself replace the values of those [nonstructural] strategies,” and substituting it for nonstructural approaches “will allow additional site disturbance leading to additional runoff.”

Perhaps most surprisingly, given the stance of the Trump administration on climate science, FEMA “is also concerned that the proposed rule does not consider future conditions of increasingly intense precipitation that is expected with climate change.” NRDC and our partners, too, have urged New Jersey to account for climate change in the stormwater management rules. As FEMA explained in its comments, “The growing number of extreme rainfall events that produce intense precipitation are resulting in—and will continue to result in—increased urban flooding unless steps are taken to mitigate their impacts.”

We shared FEMA’s comments with Politico, which reported on the agency’s criticism of the rule proposal last week (subscription required to read the article). We hope that New Jersey is paying attention as it moves forward with its updates to the rules.