Storms like Hurricanes Irene, Sandy and Ida caused major and even historic flooding in New Jersey. Many experts say the risk of flooding is only getting worse, because of climate change and development that never considered where all that water would go.
The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University partnered with NJ Spotlight News and hyperlocal news outlets throughout New Jersey to see just what communities are — or in some cases, aren't — doing to tackle the problem.
Amanda Richardson, the project manager for the Stormwater Matters project, recently spoke to Gothamist’s Tiffany Hanssen about what they found. The transcript of their conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Hanssen: When the journalists working on Stormwater Matters first envisioned the project, their major interest was in stormwater utilities. What are stormwater utilities?
Richardson: In 2019, a law was passed in New Jersey that allows municipal and county governments to create a public utility, which would assess a fee based on how much stormwater runoff is coming from a property.
So, for instance, a parking lot that's entirely paved — you'd be paying more for that than if you had a parking lot that was just dirt, and therefore water could be absorbed into it. Then that utility can use that revenue to directly fund projects that control things like stormwater flooding.
So presumably this type of fee structure has had some real success elsewhere, but not in New Jersey? Or at least not yet?
Right, yes. The law was passed, but we have yet to see a municipality implement it in New Jersey. (Editor's note: Discussions about such a utility are taking place in communities including Lambertville and Newark.)
To back up, the Solutions Journalism Network funds collaboratives throughout the country and was interested in supporting one in New Jersey. So we gathered together some journalists to talk about topics, and we kind of narrowed it down to water being really important, environment being important. And then we talked to a bunch of nonprofits that are working on the issue, and they're the ones who said, “You know, we've been working to get this law passed, to implement stormwater utilities.” And so we thought, “OK, well that's a great solution that we can focus on.”
Our reporters found that it hasn't actually been implemented anywhere in New Jersey. So one of our reporters from NJ Spotlight News, John Hurdle, went to neighboring states. He went to Wilmington, Delaware, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And he reported on how the utility works in those cities.
So did John or any of these other journalists find solutions that they thought would be viable in New Jersey?
One of the things that he found is really, it seems like the stormwater utility problem is really a PR issue. It's being framed as a “rain tax,” and opponents are saying, “Oh, it’s yet another tax that a municipality is going to assess.” And the communication about what the benefits are hasn't been there.
So really that might be the solution to getting more municipalities to adopt them — just more education about why you would want to adopt this kind of fee.
But what we found outside of the stormwater utility is that New Jersey has other kinds of solutions to the issues around stormwater management and flooding that are being implemented that are also very promising.
One of those was in Newark. One of our partners, Public Square Amplified, reported on an organization of community organizers called Newark DIG (Doing Infrastructure Green). They're using green infrastructure and community engagement to address the problem in Newark.
And then we had some of our reporters in the suburbs who were looking at different kinds of programs that in some ways were similar. One of our reporters looked at harmful algae blooms in lakes, and he found there was a solution about citizens monitoring water quality in different kinds of lakes.
And then one of our other reporters was looking at the headwaters of the New Jersey Highlands and found all sorts of solutions nonprofits are advocating and implementing, like green infrastructure, water testing, programs around protecting the rivers and doing things like planting native grasses.
It seems like these communities are coming at flooding from lots of different angles – grassroots efforts. Are they sharing these ideas among themselves?
I think what's interesting is we have this collaborative that's looking at the issue from primarily a river basin point of view. So we started out narrowed to the Passaic River and the headwaters of it. We've expanded a little since then, but what's interesting about taking that view is we see that different kinds of solutions being used upstream and downstream.
But of course they all impact each other, and it's really important to look at things holistically. And I think when you go out into the more suburban and rural areas, the nonprofits are working on things, looking at it from an ecosystem point of view. So you've got the Highlands Coalition that's looking at the New Jersey Highlands, which of course encompasses many municipalities.
But then when you come downstream, and I'm not a subject matter expert, but from the reporting that we've seen, is in a case like Newark’s, there’s a lot going on, but maybe they aren't getting the collaboration from the surrounding cities.
So I think one great thing about this collaborative is our reporters are starting to be able to look at things from that bird's eye point of view, and see how what's going on upstream affects what's going on downstream and vice versa.
So there are these varying geographic issues that these communities are facing, communities all across the state, large and small. We have a variation in terms of population, urban and suburban. Is that particular reason why you decided to partner with all of these hyperlocal news organizations as well?
We really wanted to make it a true collaborative of all different kinds of news organizations in the region. So we have my nonprofit, which is the Corporation for New Jersey Local Media, which is a nonprofit that owns newspapers. We have the Center for Cooperative Media, which is based at Montclair State University. We have NJ Spotlight News that's statewide. We have Public Square Amplified, a nonprofit newsroom based in Newark that covers the state. We have TapInto Newark, an online daily in Newark. And then, the newspapers my organization owns are all suburban and are in four different counties, and they're all print weeklies.
So they're different geographies, and they're different types of news organizations. What's great about that is we've really been bringing all these reporters into meetings weekly to talk about how we're doing coverage and how the topic shows up in our coverage areas, and with the different types of expertise we have, what the best way for each of those reporters to cover it is.
And I think it's led to richer and more in-depth reporting because not only are they taking the solutions-based point of view, but they're also able to bounce things off each other and look at things from a different perspective than just if they're working within their one organization.
So by my lights, it sounds like we have some real conversation happening now, not only between the journalists across the state, but communities across the state. It seems like there’s some real momentum here. What’s next?
So what's been great is we initially got some funding for a short-term collaborative. We started in July and were supposed to be wrapping up in November, but we've gotten some extended funding, which is great. So we're going to be going at least into February, and we'd love to keep it going for longer than that.
We have a website, njstormwatermatters.com, where we've got all of our reporting collected. By the end of February, we'll have 15 stories that we know of, and if we get more funding, we'll be able to do more.
What I've been finding interesting is [the reporters] all starting to talk about collaborating. And so we're hoping that some of these future stories will be true collaborations, where we can have, for instance, a reporter who's at the headwaters and talking about issues around that and how those are managed collaborating with someone who's downstream, who's reporting on something, say, in Newark, and the connections among those different places.