The DEP’s first major regulatory proposal under the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy has stumbled badly and will need to be rethought.
When broad changes to controls on stormwater that runs off properties were proposed by the Department of Environmental Protection, objections were raised by a coalition of 16 environmental organizations. They urged a more comprehensive and effective approach.
One of those groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council, used a public records request to obtain all of the comments on the DEP proposal. Among them was a letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency taking a position similar to the group’s and urging fundamental changes to the proposal.
Rainwater runoff is important because it causes flooding and reduces water quality in streams, rivers and bays. Nearly all New Jersey waterways — 95 percent — don’t meet federal clean-water standards, meaning they’re not safe for swimming or fishing. More than a third are degraded by stormwater runoff.
FEMA’s opinion is important because it is the state’s chief partner in controlling runoff. It has spent hundreds of millions improving New Jersey watersheds, and billions on relief after disastrous storms.
Its chief objections are twofold. One it calls “troubling” is that the DEP proposal would abandon a 2004 requirement that developers incorporate nonstructural stormwater management into their plans. These techniques include using native and natural landscaping and leaving buffer zones around streams.
The other, termed a “significant deficiency,” is that the proposal lacks a limit on the increase in runoff due to development. The environmental groups consider the failure to include a volume-based stormwater management standard a critical flaw.
FEMA also recommended the state consider adding a requirement that nutrients, such as fertilizer, be reduced in runoff water.
One proposal shortcoming was a bit embarrassing to the Murphy administration — it doesn’t “consider future conditions of increasingly intense precipitation that is expected with climate change.”
The DEP did get praise from FEMA and the conservation groups for the proposal’s focus on using green infrastructure to better manage stormwater. That tries to maintain the natural water cycle by using permeable pavements, rain gardens and green roofs to allow rain to be absorbed into the soil.
The inadequacies of the runoff proposal are surprising, considering the efforts of the Murphy administration to portray itself as pro-environment and anti-climate change. Now the proposal must go back to the drawing board, giving the administration another chance to deliver on its green promise.