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Green Brook Flood Control Project Presented by United States Army Corps

by Jeanne Whitney for The Westfield Leader and The Times

At long last, Union County got an up-close look at the proposed Green Brook Flood Control project on Monday thanks to a presentation in Scotch Plains by the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Protection. The $362 million project -- of which nearly three-quarters is to be funded by the federal government -- seeks to control flooding of the Green Brook Sub-Basin and Raritan River area including portions of Union, Somerset and Middlesex counties.

Of the project’s other one-quarter or $97 million in construction costs, the Army Corps estimates that $73 million will be paid by the state and $24 million would be split among the three counties over the 12-year construction period. Costs for ongoing maintenance of the levees, dams, channels, pipes and detention basins after the project is complete would also be shared by the state and counties, with each county responsible for an estimated $330,000 a year, while the state pays $1 million annually, according to the Army Corps.

Union County Freeholder Chairwoman Linda d. Stender has asked for an extension of the March 7 deadline for county input on the project, saying, "The stakes are high. We want to be a full partner in the whole process. We know that the environmental impact is going to be significant. There would also be an impact on the budget."

Ms. Stender said the Freeholders will seek a second opinion from engineering consultants before making any decisions about the project. Andrew Miller, a spokesman for the Army Corps, estimates that if all the players gave the green light on the project, work could begin on the project a year from now.

However, several member communities in Union and Middlesex Counties have objected to the project. In Berkeley Heights, where portions of two dry detention basins would be created in the Watchung Reservation, residents have questioned what benefits, if any, the project provides to Berkeley Heights. According to the plan, the two basins are only one aspect of a three-pronged tactic that will store flood water from the Watchung Mountains for gradual release into the lower portion of the floodplain. Parts of the two basins -- designated as Sky Top and Oak Way -- are also in Scotch Plains Township and the Borough of Watchung. The two basins include a 41- to 45-foot high earthen dam and will cover 11 acres of the 1,920 acres that make up the reservation. The basins would not be started until the third year of construction and would take three years to complete.

Residents of South Plainfield have also voiced objection to the proposed levees and floodwalls intended for the area along the Bound Brook section of the waterways.

The plans for the Stony Brook and Lower Portion that are primarily in Middlesex and Somerset Counties will seek to deepen and widen channels of the existing rivers, add earthen levees or concrete walls along the banks, install pumping stations for runoff water and add movable floodgates across roads. Clean-up and containment of eight hazardous waste sites is also included in the plan.

Seventy million dollars worth of land "buy-outs," according to the Army Corps, are also necessary for construction of the project and in order to minimize the possibility of costly damage and losses in high-risk areas in the future.

In fact, the purchasing of property or "buy-outs" in the 10-year floodplain area to discourage and eventually eliminate development in those high-risk areas is the solution advocated by the Sierra Club, an opponent of the Green Brook project. According to Anne Troop, Sierra Club Union County Conservation Chairwoman, she sees the Green Brook project as costly overkill since it proposes to build against a 150-year flood event. "Houses can also be raised above the flooding rivers," Ms. Troop says, for half the cost of the Green Brook measures. Ms. Troop also cited Tulsa, Oklahoma’s repeated struggle with flood management resulting in the purchase of vast amounts of floodplain property along the Arkansas River for use as public parks.

Under the Army Corps plan, which has already cost $24 million in study and design, Union County would be protected against flooding from a storm that happens once in 25 years. The ranking as 10, 25, 100 or 150-year events denotes the severity of the storm and flood damage and the probability of how often it happens. Somerset County would receive protection against a 150-year flood.

The origins of the Green Brook project lay in the August 1973 storm and severe flooding that left six people dead, 34 injured and more than 1,000 evacuated from the area. There was an estimated $80 million in property damage. More recently, flooding and damage resulted from heavy snow storms in January 1996 and a nor’easter last October. The Green Brook Flood Control Commission says there have been severe flooding problems in the area at least since the early part of this century, if not earlier. The commission, made up of 13 member towns in the affected area, was formed under state law in 1974 to look at flood control solutions. Berkeley Heights resigned from the group 13 years ago, according to the commission.

A Scotch Plains resident who said he enjoys living next to the Watchung Reservation calls it a tough choice to make over the prospect of the two detention basins in the reservation. "But I imagine if you own property that gets flooded, this project looks pretty good."

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