With images of flooding, drought, storms, and other extreme weather appearing in the headlines more frequently, it’s clear that the effects of climate change already are being felt in neighborhoods, communities, and cities across the U.S. In recognition of the danger that these events pose, particularly to vital water and wastewater services, states like New Jersey are re-thinking how they can change the way they allocate public funds to help communities better prepare.
One such funding program is the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), which is expected to provide $350 million to a variety of water quality protection projects throughout the state this year. In conjunction with New Jersey Future, we are submitting comments this week to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) on how the state can improve the way it allocates these funds in order to make communities more resilient to a variety of extreme weather and climate risks.
Compared to other states, New Jersey has taken laudable steps to better support projects that will help communities become more resilient. One example is the state’s commitment to reserving at least half of the amount that they can give away in the form of grants, negative-interest loans, and principal forgiveness (which have the practical effect of reducing how much money a community has to pay back) for projects that use green infrastructure to reduce combined sewer overflows. Green roofs, rain gardens, roadside plantings, porous pavement, and rainwater harvesting—to name a few examples—not only reduce flooding and protect water quality, they also transform rainwater from a source of pollution into a valuable resource.
- Waterfront South Rain Garden Park (photo credit: Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program)
New Jersey also is requiring that all funding recipients apply flood protection standards when designing and constructing structures. Whenever possible, critical infrastructure must be located outside the 500-year floodplain. If not possible, these critical system components (e.g., emergency generators, pumps) must be elevated above the 500-year flood level. This goes above-and-beyond New York’s flood protection requirements, which only apply to projects receiving funding from the state's Storm Mitigation Loan Program.
Despite these promising efforts, New Jersey can make two additional changes to maximize the effectiveness of these limited water infrastructure dollars:
- Measures that enhance a project's resilience to extreme weather and other climate change risks should be fully integrated into the project planning and design requirements and also better prioritized in the current priority system ranking methodology; and
- The state should further support green infrastructure and water efficiency measures through its implementation of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA).
As part of the project planning and design process, NJDEP should require applicants to provide information on the water efficiency, green infrastructure, and flood resiliency measures that were evaluated during the planning process, any such measures that are included in the project, and if there are none, justification for why such measures are excluded. In the existing project ranking system, projects that incorporate green infrastructure and/or water or energy efficiency measures receive additional priority points as well as projects from communities that have adopted related community strategies and/or plans. Other climate resiliency measures, such as those that reduce a project’s vulnerability to flood risks, including relocating facilities to less hazardous areas, elevating critical mechanical and electrical systems, and using natural infrastructure systems to mitigate risks from flooding, also should be eligible for additional points.
As I’ve written about previously, WRRDA makes several changes to the CWSRF, including placing water efficiency-related eligibility conditions and allowing for direct support of water conservation and stormwater management projects through grants and low-cost loans. In the implementation of these provisions, NJDEP should make the necessary revisions to fully adopt these changes.