For a half-century, a massive drainage canal beneath Baltic Avenue in Atlantic City was broken and largely forgotten. Instead of reducing flooding during tidal surges and heavy rains, it instead often brought in back-bay waters to flood city neighborhoods.
Built in 1912, this 1.8-mile-long concrete tank held as much as 1.2 million cubic feet of rainwater running off city streets, releasing it into the back bay when the tide was low enough.
Then in the early 1960s, the canal’s wooden gates broke, were vandalized and set on fire. This summer, after about 55 years, the gates were finally replaced and drainage system function restored.
These days the canal needs help in the form of massive pumps. Since it was built, the surrounding waters have gotten about 16 inches higher due to the land sinking and the ocean rising. Two pumps that can put 58,000 gallons per minute into the back bay have been installed, and four more will be operable in the next two years.
Starting now, nuisance flooding should be much reduced in the 775 acres drained by the canal. Once all the pumps are working, flooding in the city should be cut by three-quarters.
The first thing Atlantic City government should learn from the restored canal is that maintenance of infrastructure may seem costly, but saves a lot of money over time. The floodgates could have been replaced at reasonable expense in the 1960s, sparing many residents repeated and costly flooding for decades.
The second lesson is that there are a lot of government programs and other sources of funding for projects with such a clear public benefit. For too many years, Atlantic City didn’t bother to get help that was readily available — not even doing the paperwork for some low-hanging grants and funding.
That turned around with the Baltic canal project. The first phase was paid entirely by federal and state grants, including the city’s first ever from the U.S. Economic Development Agency. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust also contributed.
Back-bay flooding is the bane of barrier island living and will worsen as sea levels rise.
The state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are conducting a comprehensive study on how to mitigate such flooding. The agencies will provide information and take comments at the state’s first public meeting on the study Sept. 12 at the Ventnor Educational Community Complex.
The Baltic canal project shows flood mitigation is possible and can take years to do. U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, said he has worked for about two decades to secure funding for the canal and the much costlier Inlet sea wall that complements it — both finishing as he retires.
Residents and businesses on New Jersey’s barrier islands will need substantial flood prevention and mitigation to keep their current quality of life.
The drier streets in much of Atlantic City should inspire them to provide strong and steady support for those projects for as long as it takes.