New Jersey Must Consider Climate Change Risks in Recovery Programs

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.

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  • 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.