Watershed Matters: Princeton Poised to Act on Flooding

    from Executive Director, Jim Waltman

stormwater drain

With the federal government threatening to roll back protections for our water, air and land, it’s critical that local governments do all that they can to protect our environment.

Princeton’s town council is poised to take an important step by considering a strong new measure to address flooding and polluted stormwater runoff—two of the region’s most pressing environmental challenges. These two problems will only get worse across our region as the climate changes, unless communities take bold action.

The Council will hold a hearing and vote on the proposed ordinance at its June 12 meeting. We encourage interested residents to come to the meeting and speak out in favor of the measure.

The backdrop for Princeton’s action is pretty bleak. The President has decided to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, turning away from a global consensus on the issue and aligning our country with only two nations who are not parties to the climate agreement: Syria and Nicaragua.

The climate action follows other environmental reversals by the administration, including repeal of an EPA rule that sought to protect the nation’s streams from pollution caused by coal mining waste (nicknamed the “Clean Streams Rule”). The administration has also indicated its intention to repeal a separate rule that was created to ensure greater protection for the nation’s streams and wetlands (the so-called “Clean Water Rule”).

Weakened federal environmental protections can be at least partially offset by strong action by municipalities.

Fortunately, moves by the new administration to weaken federal environmental protections can be at least partially offset by strong action by municipalities.

Decades ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allowed the state of New Jersey to implement many of our federal environmental laws.  In doing so, the state then in turn authorized local governments to adopt stronger measures than the state or federal rules.

Princeton is using that authority to adopt a strong new stormwater ordinance.

While industrial pollution is much less of an issue than in was 50 years ago, most of New Jersey’s streams still fail to meet all of the state’s water quality standards.  The major source of contamination is polluted stormwater runoff, which is tainted by the pesticides and fertilizers we spread on our lawns, and petroleum and antifreeze that spill from our cars. Leaks from failing septic systems and broken sewer pipes, waste from our pets, soap from washing our cars, and road salt we spread on our driveways and sidewalks add to the problem.

When it rains, this witches brew of pollutants wash over our lawns, driveways, parking lots and streets as “polluted stormwater runoff.” In most cases, the polluted runoff flows into storm drains, then through a series of underground pipes that carry the runoff directly to local streams.  For most of us, these polluted streams are a source of our drinking water.

The problem is being exacerbated by the steady march of black top, concrete, roof tops and other hard surfaces that are impervious to water. With fewer unpaved areas to filter the polluted runoff and allow it to percolate down into the ground, there is more polluted runoff rushing into our streams and, consequently, more flooding. These “impervious surfaces” also rob our groundwater; because less water is sinking into the ground, our ground water supplies are not replenished as much as they once were.

Princeton’s new ordinance would require more aggressive action to address the runoff caused by construction activities, for example when modest homes are levelled and replaced with much larger ones.

So if you are upset by action in Washington, commit yourself to engaging with your local government to ensure that it is doing all that it can to protect the environment. I hope you’ll join us at the Princeton Council meeting on June 12 at 7:00 pm.

Jim Waltman is the Executive Director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, a member-supported non-profit organization that works to keep water clean, safe and healthy in central New Jersey. Jim has worked at the National Audubon Society and Wilderness Society in Washington D.C. He is a member of the State Agriculture Development Committee, which oversees New Jersey’s farmland preservation program and also serves on the board of ReThink Energy NJ, a non-profit that seeks a rapid transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.  Jim has a biology degree from Princeton University and a Master of Environmental Studies from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.