Towns of Bergen NJ want law to cap Woodcliff Lake as flooding worsens

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Flooding in the Pascack Valley area of ​​northern Bergen County is nothing new. But recently, even “unnamed” storms have flooded towns, says Westwood Mayor Raymond Arroyo.

Local officials and state lawmakers believe a solution could be found by getting tougher with the water company that owns the Woodcliff Lake Reservoir, which they say could be better managed to prevent flooding.

State Senator Holly Schepisi, a Republican from Westwood, introduced legislation which would authorize local emergency management offices to order the reservoir to be lowered in the event of inclement weather. Meanwhile, area mayors have called on Veolia Water, the utility formerly known as Suez, to cap the height of the lake at 91 feet year-round.

“The water company must be held accountable for the damage it causes to local communities,” said Frances Yates, a Westwood resident who has lived on Harding Street for 44 years and has seen flooding worsen over the decades. “It’s profit, nothing but profit.”

Veolia, however, warns that a 91-foot ceiling would cut the water company’s supply by about three days, leaving the area more vulnerable during dry spells, said Rich Henning, executive vice president of communications for the public service.

“For those of us who’ve been through dry spells, you know that any drop of water becomes critical,” Henning said.

Veolia has four dams in the Hackensack River watershed for reservoirs that supply water to 870,000 residents of Bergen and Hudson counties. The top of Woodcliff Lake is typically kept at 95 feet above sea level during the summer, but eventually “drops a bit” in the latter part of the season, Henning said.

The Harding Street area of ​​Yates, located behind Westwood Plaza and closer to the Hillsdale border, is part of the residential area that suffered massive flooding. On Memorial Day weekend and then again last Thursday, the borough was hit by storms that in the past would have been uneventful, Arroyo said.

Arroyo is one of the biggest proponents of a 91-foot limit for the lake, saying it would create an extra four feet in the lake to hold rainwater. The idea was recently endorsed by the Pascack Valley Mayor’s Association, which represents Park Ridge, Woodcliff Lake, Emerson, Hillsdale, Montvale, Old Tappan, Oradell, River Vale and Washington Township. In March, Arroyo asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to study the impact of imposing flood mitigation requirements on Lake Woodcliff, including water releases before the storm or maintaining a lower elevation all year round.

But he said the state refused to do the study.

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Arroyo said the state cited the same reasoning it’s had for years that the Woodcliff Lake reservoir “is neither designed nor designated as a flood control device and the addition of this component to its mission is “not recommended at this time”.

In addition to lowering the reservoir, Arroyo said the Bergen County government could do more to desilt the waterways on a regular maintenance schedule. It would create more capacity in streams and improve drainage in the Hackensack River, he said.

“DEP regulations make this very difficult and expensive for cities,” Arroyo said. Unlike PSEG, the electricity company, Veolia “is not responsible for the maintenance of the conduit of its product”.

$8 million for dredging at Park Ridge

Further north, Park Ridge sought state funding to dredge Silver Lake, a body of water better known as Electric Lake that feeds Woodcliff Reservoir. Mayor Keith Misciagna said state assistance was essential as the cost of the project is estimated at around $8 million.

“Anything that helps one of our cities is going to help all of our cities,” Misciagna said. “I hope this helps the whole program all the way down the line.”

Flooding has also been a problem for decades in Hillsdale. But it has gotten worse over the years due to silt buildup in local ponds and Pascack Creek and development that has happened both north of Bergen and upriver in Rockland County. said Mayor John Ruocco.

Scientists also blame a warming climate that has strengthened storms and raised water levels.

Flooding usually occurs near the border with Westwood behind Kings supermarket in Hillsdale. Under certain dire circumstances, the Borough Library located near Hillsdale Avenue will also be flooded.

Much of the new construction is due to cities facing pressure to build affordable housing, leading to an increase in the construction of market-priced units, Ruocco said.

“All cities have faced this and tried to comply with state requirements, but I think it’s had the effect of increasing the amount of impervious land,” he said. “It just makes things a little worse.”

Ruocco supports Schepisi’s bill, S-790, arguing that only a regional solution can work.

“This didn’t happen overnight and it won’t be resolved overnight,” he said.

The legislation, which enjoys bipartisan support with a co-sponsorship from Democrat Paramus Joseph Lagana, is modeled after New York legislation that would require environmental regulators and reservoir owners in that state to implement pollution control measures. flooding and to authorize local emergency management officials to require reservoirs to be lowered. when it’s necessary.

The bill would require the New Jersey DEP to identify every reservoir in the state with a documented flood record. Schepisi said last year when the Woodcliff Lake Reservoir was under construction, the water was kept at winter level. As a result, cities haven’t experienced as much flooding during small rains, she said.

The reservoir is not the only problem causing the flooding, Schepisi acknowledged. Lack of dredging in local waterways and overdevelopment also played a role, she said. Regional coordination to open waterways is therefore necessary, she added.

“If Westwood, Woodcliff Lake and Hillsdale cleaned up all their beds, dredged and got permission to spend millions of dollars in their communities, it really means nothing if Oradell, New Milford and Little Ferry clogged the waterways,” Schepisi said.

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Henning, the water company spokesman, said the call for a 91-foot cap was a “short-term response to some truly horrific flooding,” but added that the state and county should research a long-term plan to solve the problem. A better solution, he said, would be to convert housing in low-lying areas along the Hackensack into parks that could absorb floodwaters.

The Blue Acres program, part of the state’s land preservation efforts, provides funding for the purchase of flood-prone properties, he noted.

It would relate to “those areas that a hundred years ago were wetlands and could never have been built on,” Henning said. “When the reservoirs were built, it allowed them to stay dry 95% of the time, but that 5% of the time, or more, is a tough flooding equation.”

Restoring these lands to wetlands and natural buffers would put people out of harm’s way, while creating new parks and river walks, he said.

“It’s basically about reimagining what our communities will look like in the future with climate change,” Henning said. “As we know, it’s a reality. We used to talk about climate change as if it were knocking on the door, but now it’s inside the house.”

Stephanie Noda is a local reporter for For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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Twitter: @snoda11