Downtown residents in the Paulus Hook neighborhood are asking for a moratorium on new development in the area until the city has completed mitigation work designed to alleviate major flooding in the community.
However, city officials claim they have no authority to block new development, even though it may negatively impact existing homes.
Several fed-up residents who live in the community confronted city engineers, planners, and City Business Administrator Jack Kelly during an April 4 meeting of Historic Paulus Hook Association.
Ostensibly, the meeting was supposed to cover what plans the city has in store to protect Paulus Hook, Van Vorst, Newport, Harsimus Cove, and other communities in the event of future hurricanes like Irene and Sandy. But it quickly turned into a heated discussion of ongoing flooding problems residents say they have even during normal rainstorms.
The residents believe that new development in the area is partially to blame for their woes, since the current sewer and drainage system in these low-lying neighborhoods is old and cannot handle the hundreds of new residential units that have been built and added to the system in recent years. City officials acknowledge that state building standards only look at whether a sewer system can handle new development during dry weather – not wet weather events like rainstorms, nor’easters, or hurricanes.
‘Not a serious storm’
Five years ago, a typical rainstorm didn’t cause any problems for York Street resident Tad Drouet. Today, he says his home has sump pumps and backchecks – and still occasionally floods during ordinary rain showers.
A nighttime rainstorm on Feb. 26 that produced less than two inches of rain, for example, led to flooding in his basement when he tried to do a load of laundry.
“The backcheck in our main line had closed, obviously due to back pressure from the street line,” said Drouet, who said he has previously complained to the Jersey City Municipal Utilities Authority and the Division of Planning. “This was not by any account a serious storm or heavy rainfall…The only conclusion that one can draw is that the capacity of our sewer to draw water out of this neighborhood during rain events has decreased over the past few years. It is no longer able to handle even a simple rain event.”
The sewer system ‘is no longer able to handle even a simple rain event.’ – Tad Drouet
“The system, as it stands right now, is not handling the rain,” Tucker said.
“Every single time it rains, every single time it rains, my house floods,” said a resident who only gave her name as Anna. “I cannot flush the toilet. I am getting very upset because I paid a lot of money renovating my house. I pay a lot of property taxes. For what?”
Some help on the way
The Jersey City Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA) has plans in place that should alleviate flooding in the area. But these plans are still a work in progress and have not been fully completed or implemented yet.
The city is, for instance, exploring the possibility of reopening an old treatment plant near Liberty Science Center to store storm water after major storms. The plant, according to MUA Executive Director Dan Becht, would not treat the storm water runoff. Instead, the plant would simply be used as a retention center to hold storm water.
“We have the capacity to store approximately eight million to 12 million gallons of water, which we could hold until a storm subsides, and then we could send it back to Passaic Valley for treatment,” Becht explained. Essentially, the plant is able to handle runoff from a 10-year storm.
Currently such storm runoff is discharged out to the Hudson River, which can then lead to flooding into residents’ homes.
The MUA recently met with representatives from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to request the necessary permits to begin to implement this plan. Before this plant can be reopened both the EPA and DEP must give authorization.
Becht described the two agencies as being “very receptive” to the solutions proposed by the MUA.
The city also plans to install two pumps at the end of Essex Street that would enable the MUA to quickly pump water into the Hudson River during major storms. This, according to Becht, would reduce the amount of water flowing into the city’s interceptor.
“The less water that gets backed up into the interceptor, the less water will be backed up into people’s basements,” he said.
These pumps should be installed sometime this summer Becht said last week at the meeting.
Last year the city also cleaned its major interceptor, which, according to Becht, cleared “out all the filth and debris that potentially blocks the passage of sewage throughout the pipes.”
The city’s sewage pipes feed into this interceptor, according to MUA Engineer Rich Haytas, which begins at 18th Street and Coles and snakes through downtown and ends at a plant located behind Liberty Science Center.
What about now?
While these projects will help prevent flooding eventually, Drouet and other residents fear what will happen the next time another average rain shower moves through the area.
“I’m happy that we’ve got something that looks like it’s on the near horizon and something else that’s a few years out,” Drouet said. “But we’ve got something that’s nine stories already on York Street. You’ve got the Majestic, which is on the horizon on York Street. I don’t know what the timing is for the hookups. But I would make a request that until these pumps are in place, not one more toilet, not one more sink, is hooked up to the sewer system.”
“The sewer system is at capacity during wet weather,” MUA Engineer Rich Haytas admitted. But, he added, “We do not have the ability to decline development. The state says if you have [dry flow] capacity to accept development, then we have to sign off on that development.”
The frustrated residents say they plan to explore other ways to pressure either the city or state to block new development until the city’s pumps are installed and are proven to work.
Another strategy suggested by one resident may be to force the city to increase sewer connection fees for new developments in flood prone communities.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.