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Column: Another Study on Flooding in Passaic Basin

Officials announce new study, but history says nothing will come of it.

It’s déjà vu all over again in the Passaic River Basin.

Last week, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a $2.4 million study, split 50-50 between the state and the feds, to review measures to help flood-prone areas.

Hooray, because there haven’t been nearly enough studies done that have been tossed aside and never acted upon.

The Passaic River Coalition says the basin is among the most flood-prone areas in the United States. Efforts at controlling the water began almost 150 years ago.  

There were eight studies over a 40-year period in the early 1900s. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrote its first plan in 1939.

Since the problem continues, all these studies obviously didn’t get very far.

So the logical decision is to study some more.

This time around, officials are saying the study is for the “first phase” of a review of potential flood control measures.

First phase? Wouldn’t that have been in 1870? Or 1902? Or 1939? Or 1955? Or 1968? Or 1977? Or 1984? Or 2010. That last year was when Gov. Chris Christie created a committee to make recommendations for dealing with the floods.

Another study was one of those recommendations and the jointly-funded review announced last week is that study.

The history of the problem has been one of study, report and inaction. Again and again.

In announcing this latest study, state officials called it a re-evaluation of alternatives, particularly those involving levees, floodwalls, channel modifications and bridge and dam changes. The Army Corps’ chief says this agreement will lead to comprehensive, long-term flooding solutions.

History has shown that won’t be the case.

The most recent large-scale effort at flood control was the famed flood tunnel. It was to have stretched about 20 miles and cost $1.8 billion. State officials agreed with the Army Corps’ recommendation in the mid-1980s that the tunnel was the best way to control flooding. And then the question of the cost and environmental impacts derailed it.

The result: Decades of more floods, including two back-to-back devastating storms last summer.

According to state and federal officials, this new study is going to look at different combinations of flood management tools, using updated engineering and economic benefits. That includes evaluating potential modifications to Beatties Dam, which some people contend has been somewhat responsible for recent floods.

The study begins this month. Public information sessions are planned for later this summer to explain more about it. A draft conceptual report is supposed to be available late next year, followed by public outreach meetings.

But will history repeat itself and this report will go right into cyber storage and never be implemented?

In the meantime, the state has been using some federal money to raise and buyout homes in flood plains. But that’s a slow and piecemeal process that is likely to cost a lot of money, too.

It’s good that the state is looking to do more than just buy out homes, but where is the assurance that anything will come of the latest study?

There is also the question of governmental responsibility, given people chose to live in these flood plains. Any solution should include strict controls on development.

Getting this right can benefit those beyond the Passaic River Basin, as other areas—around North Branch and Manville—also have flooding problems. Solutions that work in one area may be adaptable in others.

Complacency will just lead to more damage, more heartaches and more costs. 

Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.

This column appears on Patch sites serving communities in Morris, Somerset and Sussex counties. Comments below may be by readers of any of those  sites.

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