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New Open Space Institute Grant Supports More Planning to Curb New Jersey Flood Impacts

Winding along the western boundary of New Jersey, the Delaware River has been a dynamic force in shaping the landscape and development patterns of the state’s riverside communities. Now, with climate change expected to increase the frequency of extreme weather and floods across the Delaware River Basin, these low-lying municipalities are looking for effective strategies to safeguard homes, infrastructure, and lives.

Rising to the challenge, the Open Space Institute (OSI) through the Delaware River Watershed Initiative is funding more efforts to embed watershed and climate science in local planning. Building on earlier grants, including a 2017 grant for planning work in Warren County, New Jersey, OSI this year awarded a “Watershed Catalyst” grant to The Land Conservancy of New Jersey (TLCNJ) that will support development of updated open space and flood protection plans for two of the county’s townships, Knowlton and Harmony.

“The next big storm is coming — towns know it and are trying to figure out how to prepare,” said Barbara Heskins Davis, Vice President of Programs for TLCNJ, and lead planner on the project. “OSI’s Catalyst grant will facilitate an open space planning process that provides a cohesive vision of benefit for the community and a critical link to public funding.”

Planning for the next storm

The Portland-Columbia Pedestrian Bridge, which spans the Delaware River between Columbia, NJ (part of Knowlton Township) and Portland, PA, was rebuilt after it was destroyed in flooding caused by Hurricane Diane in 1955.
The Portland-Columbia Pedestrian Bridge, which spans the Delaware River between Columbia, NJ (part of Knowlton Township) and Portland, PA, was rebuilt after it was destroyed in flooding caused by Hurricane Diane in 1955.
Photo Credit: WallyFromColumbia (Public Domain)

While Warren County enjoys clean drinking water and fertile agriculture soils from the Delaware River, its waters can also be a source of damage and destruction. In 2011, heavy rains associated with Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee flooded homes and caused road closures across Warren County; and the following year, Superstorm Sandy became the most damaging and expensive disaster in the state’s history.

One effective and natural solution to curb the effects of these worsening floods is land protection. A growing body of research documented by OSI 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.

To harness the benefits of land protection for Knowlton and Harmony, TLCNJ is using OSI’s grant to identify opportunities for reducing flood impacts through two strategies: targeted acquisition of undeveloped land within floodplains, and voluntary buyouts of structures in high flood risk areas.

To achieve the two strategies, TLCNJ will identify lands with high water-protection value and that play a critical role in storing and slowing floodwaters. The plan will also identify potential properties for a state-funded program that buys out flood-prone structures from willing sellers and restores the underlying land, offering residents in flood zones the ability to relocate.

Securing community input

Throughout the process, TLCNJ will work closely with town officials and volunteer boards to host a series of public meetings and learn about past experiences with flooding. Meanwhile, the community will provide input on draft plans.

If adopted, the updated plans will enable the townships to apply for state funding for open space preservation and buyouts from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres program, and help to target future flood resilience and water quality investments.

“We are grateful for the Open Space Institute's grant and the opportunity,” said Adele Starrs, Mayor of Knowlton Township. “This is an opportunity to ensure water quality protection — a critical issue along the Delaware and in an area where every resident relies on well water.

“It's also a chance to make sure that as the climate changes, Knowlton is informed about stormwater and flooding patterns that may affect us,” Starrs continued. “This is an opportunity for Knowlton to be smart, prepared, and resilient in the years ahead.”

OSI’s Watershed Catalyst Grant Program is a program of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative with generous support from the William Penn Foundation.

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