Gov. Christie will hand his successor a creeping disaster if he succeeds in imposing new development rules that would destroy wetlands, the best natural protection against flooding.
Each acre of wetlands soaks up a million gallons of water. They also filter out pollutants that endanger the water supply. But wetlands will be endangered if Christie reduces the responsibility of developers for wetland restoration after they build strip malls, condos, and pipelines. Instead of inspections to confirm restoration work, there would only be the developer’s word.
Currently, developers must restore two acres for every one acre they destroy because restoration typically only works half the time. The new rules obligate developers to restore just one acre for every acre they destroy. The Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel says that would result in a net loss of wetlands acreage.
Equally shortsighted is a provision releasing developers from restoring areas that are near other wetlands destroyed by development. Theoretically, developers might destroy wetlands in Gloucester County but only restore them in adjacent Camden County.
Dismantling existing rules will cause the gradual depletion of wetlands. Over time, as flooding increases, the loss of wetlands will weaken the region’s defenses against future flooding.
Christie’s stated reason for changing the rules is to streamline the permitting process for developers. But that worthy goal would be undercut by the damage caused by the new regulations.
Despite what some people may think, flood protection doesn’t just benefit millionaires with oceanfront homes. Anyone who lives near a river, creek, or back bay is also at risk of being flooded.
Even with its problems, New Jersey is ahead of most states, including Pennsylvania, in protecting residents and property from flooding. Its 1988 Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act is so strong that the federal government allows New Jersey to act on its behalf in enforcing wetlands rules.
That makes Christie’s move to weaken flood protections even worse. It damages the state’s stellar reputation as an environmental leader.
Pennsylvania is sliding the wrong way too. A March analysis by the Pew Trusts says as flooding increases, economic damage in the state (now about $91.6 million a year) will increase.
People in New Jersey who’ve mopped up a basement or replaced an exhausted sump pump know the problems flooding causes. They have until June 30 to make public comments that could stop Christie’s rule changes before he leaves office. If the rules are enacted, expect a gold rush for development permits before a new governor is seated.
Both major party’s gubernatorial candidates seem interested in protecting the environment, but who can say if they would be persuaded by development interests once they are in office.
Environmentalists have been gathering ammunition for a court challenge of the rules changes, but it would be quicker if the legislature would intervene. It should. Even those lawmakers who seem to cower before Christie should understand that once he’s gone in January they will be left to face flooded-out constituents.