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How New Jersey Prioritizes Green Stormwater Projects in Marginalized Communities

How New Jersey Prioritizes Green Stormwater Projects in Marginalized Communities

As temperatures rise, flooding hits low-income communities the hardest. Here’s how New Jersey is trying to lessen the impacts.

In 2015, Camden SMART Initiative did something called “daylighting” in Cramer Hill, a vibrant but disinvested community in East Camden that had been suffering from severe localized flooding.

Daylighting, a green infrastructure term, means bringing buried waterways back to life. SMART resurrected a section of the nonfunctioning Baldwin’s Run tributary that had been filled in for years, exacerbating sewage overflow and flooding.

Through the project, called the Von Nieda Park Stormwater Management and Park Improvement Project, they mitigated over 50 million gallons of stormwater per year. This endeavor was the most successful green infrastructure enhancement to date for the nonprofit.

Baldwins Run, camden NJ
Von Nieda Park/Baldwin’s Run, 29th Street and Harrison Avenue (Camden County/Camden City). Stormwater management for park/Stream daylighting; Camden SMART.

As with any environmental crisis, low-income, marginalized communities suffer first and most, bearing the brunt of climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction. In New Jersey, the frequency of precipitation and coastal sea-level rise create an urgent need for effective stormwater infrastructure. Ninety percent of New Jersey’s waterways fail water quality standards. This environmental justice issue is one that the state has been tackling head-on through green infrastructure initiatives and policy changes.

The intersection of environmental justice and flooding

Twenty-one municipalities in New Jersey have combined sewer overflows (CSOs), a top pollution concern in about 860 U.S. municipalities. In New Jersey, this causes flooding into the streets and rivers, and sometimes basements of disinvested communities.

Increased urbanization also means increased amounts of impervious surfaces, so residents experience flooding with just a few inches of rain.

(Just watch this video of uncontrolled stormwater runoff on 8th Street.)

“To prevent these overflows from occurring, we need to keep the stormwater out of the sewer,” says Chris Obropta, extension specialist in Water Resources with Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

The state’s poorest communities are in areas that suffer most from flooding due to CSOs, and green stormwater infrastructure is the cheapest and most efficient correction.

“The other benefits of green stormwater infrastructure are equally important, such as reducing the heat island effect, creating open space, enhancing the aesthetics of the community, and engaging neighbors to come together to address the CSO and local flooding issues,” Obropta, says.

This combined flooding has also polluted the local lakes (on top of suffering from algal blooms), limiting the ability for recreation, he says.

Camden’s Community impact

The city of Camden is one such community suffering from chronic flooding.

“We understood it flooded (Camden), but we didn’t understand how much of an impact it was having,” says Meishka Mitchell, Vice President of Coopers Ferry Partnership, a non-profit dedicated to the revitalization of the City of Camden, and a collaborative partner of Camden SMART.

The Partnership moved to prioritize green infrastructure a few years ago to mitigate flooding after the issue was repeatedly brought to their attention by the community.

“The residents of Camden didn’t choose this,” she says of the persistent flooding. “They often have no choice to mitigate or move away.”

Many of the longtime residents of the City of Camden don’t have insurance.

“They just go and clean it up and stop reporting it,” says Mitchell, “because it’s a part of their life. People shouldn’t get used to living in those kinds of conditions.”

When people think of flooding in coastal cities, especially after a superstorm, they often assume the water is rising from the shore and flooding the community, says Mitchell.

“That is not the flooding we’re talking about,” she says. “We can have major flooding in an inch of rainfall if it comes in a quick duration.”

Every gallon of water that can be prevented from going into the combined sewer system helps—from small scale rain garden projects, to rain barrels, to stream daylighting and community education.

“We knew that in a struggling city…with a structural deficit, fixing a lot of these problems would take a nonconventional approach,” says Mitchell.

Not all problems can be solved with green infrastructure, says Mitchell. But it is part of the solution.

Working together on water policy in New Jersey

“We have a state that has prioritized green infrastructure as a matter of policy,” says Chris Sturm, managing director of policy and water at New Jersey Future, a nonprofit organization that promotes smart land-use decisions and infrastructure investments.

The state comprises many smaller, mostly poor cities, compared to larger surrounding cities such as Philadelphia, NYC, or DC- and lacks leadership in green infrastructure. This makes state policies more important in New Jersey than in other states, says Sturm.

New Jersey Future and New Jersey Water Works have pursued a “collective impact approach,” a model wherein the actors in a system committed to solving a particular social problem, using structured collaboration.

“As part of our focus on water, we became aware that it’s a gigantic system. To really change the system, we needed to engage all the actors in the system in a different way,” says Sturm.

Green infrastructure has manifested in New Jersey as planted strips alongside city streets, street trees, green roofs and pervious pavement underneath parking areas and parks.

The City of Hoboken acquired 6 acres in Northwest to transform a former industrial site into its largest public park in 2016. The park is part of the City’s water management plan to make Hoboken, one of the country’s four most densely populated cities, more resilient to climate change. The following year the city opened its second “resiliency park.” These parks act like sponges, using green stormwater infrastructure to hold approximately 200,000 gallons of stormwater.

Green is not traditional, says Sturm: “Engineers who like certainty and politically correct contractors tend to prefer gray infrastructure.”

And, she points out, you have to have both.

“It’s very fragmented, the way water is managed,” says Sturm. “New Jersey is unique in the way the state government is trying to reduce the risk of these systems failing.”

In January, New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy announced his approval for a crucial environmental justice bill, one that would force applicants filing for environmental permits to take into account the possible negative effects on low-income communities of color, allowing the Department of Environmental Protection to reject any applications that could cause damage to those residents.

“Tremendous awareness has been raised, in large part through Jersey Water Works,” says Strum.

A new rule was also developed requiring integrated green management in CSOs as an alternative solution for reducing and eliminating overflows, called the Long Term Control Plans. 

There’s a new law called the Water Quality Accountability Act that governs drinking water infrastructure,, and will soon cover wastewater infrastructure. New Jersey also has a progressive water financing bank, called “the water bank,” which offers lower interest and forgiveness of loans, to make green stormwater infrastructure more affordable.

“These underground water management systems—they’re out of sight and out of mind, and ignored until there’s a problem,” says Sturm. “The most urgent thing is making their condition more transparent to decision-makers and the public.”

“We need more water citizens,” she says.

This story was produced in partnership with CivicStory, and funded by a grant from Spring Point Partners LLC.    

Cover photo: Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority parking lot, Facebook.  

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Claire is a freelance journalist and graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she focused on health and science journalism. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Grist, WIRED, and Grid Magazine. When she's not writing, she's turning over logs in the woods or reading Harry Potter with her kindergartner. View all posts by Claire Marie Porter
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