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Research & Policy

Harnessing Land as a Defense Against Floods (2020)

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A Helping Hand in the Search for a Solution to Flooding

As the threat of a changing climate becomes a new reality, municipalities along the Delaware River are seeing the effects close to home: intense downpours that can flood streets and homes, inundate sewers, clog waterways with sediment, and even claim lives. And with floods only expected to worsen — one model from Shippensburg University predicts a 66 percent increase by 2090 — communities are searching for effective solutions.

As a leader within the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, the Open Space Institute (OSI) is addressing this growing threat through its Watershed Catalyst Program. The program is at the forefront of efforts to support regional and local planning that harnesses watershed science, with the goal of enhancing one of the most effective defenses against flooding: targeted land conservation.

A growing body of research proves that floodplains and wetlands are highly effective in curbing the effects of intense rain events – acting as natural sponges and braking fast-moving floodwaters.

Putting this research into action, OSI grantee New Jersey Future (NJF) embarked on a pilot project that aims to help municipalities throughout the state take advantage of a voluntary incentive program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), called the Community Rating System (CRS). CRS rewards communities for taking proactive steps to increase flood resilience with discounts for homeowners on federal flood insurance. Despite being hailed as a mechanism to help municipalities realize the benefits of better floodplain management, the cumbersome application process has limited the ability of some communities to participate.

“Many communities see the benefit of enrolling in the CRS program, but because an average application takes 18 months and hundreds of hours of staff time, they can’t always marshal the time and resources to apply,” said Tanya Rohrbach, NJF Community Planning Manager. “OSI’s Watershed Catalyst grant gave us the funding to step in and start to develop a replicable solution.”

A New Approach for Medford

Medford, New Jersey, a township of 23,000 residents located just 40 minutes east of downtown Philadelphia, has long been plagued by flooding. In 2004, a storm dumped nearly 14 inches of rain, inundating the nearby Rancocas Creek and resulting in multiple dam failures and significant property damage.

Case Study Delaware Watershed Lands In Sussex County2
A growing body of research proves that floodplains and wetlands are highly effective in curbing the effects of intense rain events.

In the years since, the township has endured several additional large floods, as well as annual nuisance flooding, leading to road closures and damage to local businesses. “There’s been a long history of flooding in Medford Township, and we’re only seeing trends towards more intense storms over time,” said Lieutenant Robert Dovi, Medford’s emergency management coordinator. “We recognize the need for a comprehensive and coordinated approach to address these impacts on a large scale.”

So when OSI Watershed Catalyst grantee and smart growth advocate NJF approached Medford with an offer to help enroll the township in the CRS, the Township Council signed on to participate in the pilot project. With a $35,000 Watershed Catalyst grant from OSI in hand, NJF set out not only to help Medford, but also to develop a replicable model that will help other Delaware River communities take advantage of the CRS program and realize benefits for land protection.

Protecting Land to Save Money for Residents

In addition to promoting practical solutions to curb local flooding, the CRS offers discounted rates to flood insurance policyholders in communities that enact floodplain management and policies that exceed the minimum standards set by the National Flood Insurance Program. By electing to implement best practices in disaster planning, sharing information with the public, adopting stronger regulations, and taking steps to reduce flood hazard, towns can bolster resilience to future floods and save residents money.

Among the highest-rewarded actions by the CRS is land protection, which can keep people and buildings out of the inundation zone; slow the flow of floodwater to lessen its force; and buffer impacts to existing structures. In fact, land protection is so effective that it can return as much as $5 in avoided damages for every dollar spent, according to a 2019 study from The Nature Conservancy.

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