Research & Policy

Harnessing Land as a Defense Against Floods (2020)

Photo Credit: wikipedia photos

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.

A growing body of research proves that floodplains and wetlands are highly effective in curbing the effects of intense rain events.
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.

To harness land protection’s potential locally, NJF got to work mapping existing open space and unprotected parcels, to aid the township’s efforts to prioritize future land protection, and site development away from high-risk areas. The nonprofit’s careful review of municipal ordinances identified areas where the township could strengthen existing policies — such as Medford’s floodplain ordinance — to increase protection.

For Medford, the months-long process also put into perspective proactive steps the township has already taken, to strengthen its preparedness for future floods — including two home buyouts and plans to consider open space preservation elsewhere in the floodplain.

“The partnership with New Jersey Future gave us the resources to inventory and streamline the many tasks involved with a CRS application,” said Lt. Dovi, who worked with NJF and colleagues across Medford’s municipal departments to complete the project. “It encouraged us to formalize our polices so that we’ll have a plan to turn to when faced with future floods.”

A Model for Other Communities

With Medford on its way to finalizing a CRS application, NJF can now turn to replicating the success for other flood-prone communities along the Delaware River.

“The Catalyst grant enabled New Jersey Future to better understand what municipalities need to implement the CRS program, and allowed us to evaluate the program’s alignment with floodplain preservation goals,” said NJF’s Rohrbach.

For its part, as one of only two municipalities in its county currently enrolled or pursuing CRS eligibility, Medford is poised to be a regional leader in floodplain management. Lt. Dovi has already shared Medford’s experience with his counterparts in other communities at recent county-wide meetings of Emergency Management coordinators.

“From a county perspective, there are multiple riverfront towns that could benefit from CRS,” he contends. “If we could encourage every emergency manager to take this step, it would improve our ability to look globally at how water affects us here in our county.”

OSI’s Watershed Catalyst Grant Program is a program of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, made possible through the generosity of the William Penn Foundation.

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