New Jersey plans to release a set of regulations early next year that could force most future development to adapt to climate change threats by building fewer first-floor living spaces, elevating new roads, removing pavement around wetlands and taking dozens of other steps.
The new rules, developed over the past two years, will help keep future development from exacerbating the chronic flooding problems outlined in NorthJersey.com's five-part series this past week called "Saturation Point," Shawn LaTourette, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, said Thursday.
"It's to ensure that what we build today will stand the test of time," LaTourette said.
Flooding has long been New Jersey's greatest natural threat, but in recent years the state has been battered by record rainfall and more intense storms such as Ida, which claimed 30 lives in September.
Astronomical costs, bureaucratic blockades and concerns that the solutions may be worse than the problem have stalled many large-scale flood mitigation efforts proposed for New Jersey over the decades.
Although the new rules — called "Resilient Environments and Landscapes" — won't directly affect existing buildings and infrastructure in the nation's most densely populated state, they will help prevent future development from making flooding even worse as rainfall amounts, sea-level rise and warmer temperatures are expected to increase in the coming decades, LaTourette said.
Many developments will require a study on how vulnerable they would be to climate change.
"The goal is that we won't wait for something terrible to happen to act," he said. "We're ready in case it does."
LaTourette said many of the coastal building reforms that came after Superstorm Sandy slammed into New Jersey in 2012 will be extended to flood-prone areas inland.
Flood hazard areas will be substantially larger than what is currently depicted on Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps. New Jersey still uses 22-year-old rainfall and flood data when determining planning and development.
A new study released Thursday by a Cornell University professor and the state DEP shows that rainfall and other precipitation amounts are 2.5% to 10% higher than they were in 1999, the year Tropical Storm Floyd brought torrential flooding to parts of the state. Those precipitation amounts are likely to increase by more than 20% statewide by the end of the century, according to the study.
"As we move into a warmer and wetter world, it is crucial that the most recent rainfall observations and state-of-the-art climate model simulations of future rainfall be incorporated into decisions regarding flood potential, infrastructure design and resiliency planning,” said Arthur DeGaetano, the study's author and a professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell.
Combating flooding and adapting for climate change is not an easy task in New Jersey, a state where building interests have powerful clout in Trenton and where land use planning is generally the domain of 565 separate municipalities constantly looking to expand their tax bases to keep property taxes from further skyrocketing.
New Jersey is already the most densely populated state, with enormous amounts of transportation infrastructure and centers of commerce. About 15% of New Jersey's land is covered with concrete, asphalt or other impervious material, compared with 1% of the entire U.S.
Development brings with it more impervious surfaces, such as roads, parking lots and large roofs. They send rainwater runoff more quickly into streams, rivers and outdated stormwater systems, causing them to overflow and flood neighborhoods, since there's less vegetation and soil to absorb the water.
Aerial images comparing the Meadowlands in 1930 and 2020 illustrate how dramatic the development has been. In 1930, much of the region's wetlands remained undeveloped, so they could act as a natural sponge to absorb runoff. Today, the area is largely developed, with the Meadowlands sports complex, the American Dream mega-mall and entertainment complex, and dozens of large warehouses.
Looming over everything is the impact of climate change. Warmer air can hold more moisture, and gradually warming temperatures have created so much moisture in the atmosphere that New Jersey has seen some of its highest rainfall amounts in recent years thanks to more intense storms.
The new regulations are set to be released in the first quarter of 2022, LaTourette said.
If the coastal protections made post-Sandy "were taken up the riverways and not just coastal, it would have protected people from Ida," he said. "Not everyone, not everywhere — but it would have made a difference."
Scott Fallon has covered the COVID-19 pandemic since its onset in March 2020. To get unlimited access to the latest news about the pandemic's impact on New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ finalizing major development restrictions to combat future flooding