After months of demands from residents and officials, representatives for United Water heeded the call Monday night to address flooding concerns in the wake of Hurricane Irene.
The three-hour mayor and council meeting included a slide presentation by Richard Henning, a spokesman for United Water, who answered the question New Milford residents have been asking since the August storm left several homes and businesses underwater: Can United Water make the decision to release water, or does that determination come from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)?
New Milford officials have been trying to reach an agreement with the agency, along with the DEP and the state Office of Emergency Management to facilitate releasing water prior to a major weather event, in order to reduce flooding.
Henning explained that although governed by the DEP, United Water is responsible for the day to day release of water. He said that the DEP gives them a daily safe yield that they have to maintain, meaning that the DEP looks at how much water can be stored that can safely and adequately supply United Water's 800,000 customers on a daily basis. The DEP expects every water supply company to hold as much water as they can in case of drought.
Henning said that if United Water releases water on a storm-by-storm basis, they risk lowering their safe yield.
Six percent (260) of the borough's homes are affected by the repetitive flooding associated with , the , and Floyd and many of those residents were present in the audience eager to hear what United Water had to say.
Henning made it clear that water supply and flood mitigation are two completely different needs. United Water is in the business of supplying water to almost 800,000 customers in Bergen and Hudson Counties on a daily basis and must always guard against droughts.
Mayor Ann Subrizi asked if United Water can release water prior to a major weather event.
But United Water's position is this: what if that major weather event never happens?
United Water maintains that as a steward of water supply they are required by the DEP to provide an adequate supply of water to its customers.
"If you release water you won't get it back," Henning said, and United Water is required by the DEP to maintain a safe yield based on supply demands from their customers. According to Henning, the Hackensack River system has a safe yield of 66 million gallons.
Subrizi stated that she still wants to reach an agreement with the DEP, United Water, and the state and county OEM to facilitate releasing water prior to a major weather event. She also intends to continue to advocate for dredging and de-snagging the river.
Henning said development in flood plains is largely to blame. Prior to the 1960's, 75% of rainwater was absorbed by grassland while 25% went into the brooks and streams, he said. The development boom in Bergen and Rockland Counties that began in the 1960's resulted in almost 100% of the run-off going into the brooks and streams. All of this development culminated in the 1980's with increased water supply needs.
During Floyd in 1999, Bergen County was experiencing a drought and the reservoirs were at 40% and still they went over capacity with all of the rain. During the April 2007 nor'easter and Hurricane Irene, the reservoirs were at 100%.
Columbia Ave. resident Sharon Hilmer asked if building another reservoir would be a better solution to the flooding problems. Henning replied that there are plans along the Passaic River, near the Marcal factory, for a reservoir and they are waiting for state approval, but nothing is currently planned for the Hackensack River.
Henning said that the flooding is not going to stop; therefore, the only long term solution in New Jersey is to do what they did in Missouri—the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) purchased 4000 severe repetitive loss homes over the course of 10 years.
He hailed Senator Bob Gordon's (R-38) bill, No. 3078, as the only viable long-term solution for flood prone areas. This bill would allow the use of Green Acre funds for Blue Acre purchases.
"We need to restore our flood plains. They were there for a reason," Henning said. He reiterated that the only way to completely solve the flooding problem is to restore the natural flood plain.
Historically, FEMA money has gone into reconstruction, but Henning says that even environmental groups agree that that's throwing good money after bad.
Councilman Howard Berner countered this by asking how, then, could United Water sell the of land to a developer if United Water believes that it is needed to restore the flood plains?
Henning replied that the 16 acre tract of land is not located in a flood plain; it is adjacent to it.
Karl Schaffenberger, Chairman of the Zoning Board, said that the 16 acre property may not be situated directly in the flood plain, but it is located in a "flood sensitive" area.
"The buyer essentially wants to pave it," Schaffenberger commented. "Where is the water going to go?" He went on to say that rezoning that property for development is "absolutely wrong" and suggested that United Water sell it to New Milford for one dollar. "We'll do the right thing with it; you won't," he said. He then removed a one dollar bill from his pocket and placed it on the podium.
The mayor and council meeting also included the swearing-in of newly-elected Councilman Austin Ashley by Sen. Gordon.
The next meeting of the Mayor and Council is December 12.