When severe thunderstorms blew through the tri-state region last weekend, New Jersey’s largest city was left with major flooding.
Many of Newark’s low-lying neighborhoods found themselves caught between heavy rainfall and the rising waters of the Passaic River, leaving behind streets that more resembled waist-deep lakes than roadways. The scene was similar to what parts of the Bronx and upper Manhattan faced during Tropical Storm Elsa in early July.
Both cities rely on their sewage systems to handle stormwater, and when those old pipes get overwhelmed, the rainwater ends up back on the streets. In this case, parts of Newark at low elevations, like the Ironbound neighborhood and parts of the South and East Wards, found themselves swamped.
Dr. Daniel Van Abs, associate professor of Practice for Water, Society & Environment at Rutgers University, said those sewers were built in the late 19th century and can no longer keep up with the heavy rainstorms that have become more and more common in the last 30 years.
“It’s old. It’s one of the older urban areas in the United States,” Van Abs said. “And the result is that its stormwater systems were designed, really, for different times, different rainfall patterns and different purposes than we currently have.”
Van Abs explained the sewers were never designed to completely remove stormwater from the streets because trees and plants used to cover far more of the city. Those green spaces could absorb the extra rainfall, but more than a century of industrial construction and development left Newark coated in concrete and asphalt, neither of which allow water to seep underground. That means once the sewer systems are overloaded, that water stays in place until there’s space in the drains, or it dries up completely.
“You can’t tear up all the lines and replace them,” Van Abs said, meaning that cities need to focus on the wettest spots. “The ones that flood over and over and over again, those are ones where these cities are going to have to focus their efforts and their money, and it isn’t going to be cheap.”
The cost of water infrastructure has been at the top of mind for many Newark residents for years after the discovery of sky-high lead levels in drinking water throughout the city resulted in a $134 million project to replace tens of thousands of pipes. Prior to that, Newark Water and Sewer Acting Director Kareem Adeem said the city invested about $190 million into updating water and sewer lines in order to address some of these chronic flooding problems, some of which was done at the same time as the city was replacing the lead drinking water lines.
But there was only so much Newark’s water infrastructure could do in the face of such a severe storm. A big tide or any high-intensity rainfall that dumps three to five inches of water in an hour will push Newark’s older system to capacity, Adeem said.
“Newark does have an old infrastructure, and this administration right now is still doing water and sewer infrastructure repairs, and replacements and upgrades to an aging system,” he added.
Let’s face it: Stormwater is not a sexy issue.
Adeem hopes that the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure bill will help lift some of the financial burden of fixing the stormwater system. For now, Van Abs said a piecemeal approach could work, though to truly make a difference, officials must identify and address the most problematic “wet spots” first.
“Let’s face it, stormwater is not a sexy issue,” Van Abs said. “Stormwater is not going to get the attention of Congress to sink billions of dollars into it. And so it really is going to wind up being a step-by-step process that’s mostly funded locally and through redevelopment projects.”
Another solution advocates say could address the cost of updating Newark’s infrastructure is for the city to establish a stormwater utility to pay for the upgrades by charging property owners fees according to how much runoff their land produces. While some might chafe at the thought of new municipal fees, Chris Sturm, the managing director for Policy and Water at the nonprofit New Jersey Future, believes it would actually be a more equitable way to pay for stormwater infrastructure improvements.
“All of the stormwater improvements are paid for by people who have toilets and sinks. They’re not paid for by people who own parking lots or large warehouses,” Sturm said. “Meanwhile, those are the properties that are generating most of the runoff. That’s a really important solution for Newark going forward, just to make sure that everybody who is contributing to the problem is also contributing resources to solve it.”
In 2019, New Jersey passed a law allowing municipalities to create stormwater utilities, just like in dozens of other states around the country. Adeem says Newark is currently reviewing the final draft of a study examining the feasibility of creating one, though establishing it may take time.
“I think it would be helpful to the city in general,” Adeem said. “It will remove a little bit of the burden off of the homeowners and put more on those commercial and industrial properties that contribute a lot of stormwater runoff into the sewer system.”
While Sturm acknowledges that it’s a complex process to create one and establish fees, she says it could be a boon to cities like Newark that are already struggling to manage the results of extreme weather brought on by climate change.
“Newark is a national leader in replacing lead service lines,” Sturm said. “There’s absolutely no reason why the city of Newark shouldn’t be a national leader in managing the kind of stormwater runoff and flooding problems that we’re seeing today.”