Commissioner LaTourette’s remarks, as prepared:
Introduction: Climate change is the single greatest threat to our communities, economies, and way of life in New Jersey. In its Sixth Assessment Report last year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explained, in no uncertain terms, that climate change is happening now and that its effects will continue to worsen due to the greenhouse gases humankind has already emitted and continues to emit into the atmosphere.1 The IPCC’s 2021 report echoes the findings of our own Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in the 2020 New Jersey-specific Scientific Report on Climate Change because the science is clear: temperatures are increasing, sea-levels are rising, and extreme weather is becoming more frequent and intense.2
We must make faster and more considerable changes to reduce global emissions of climate pollutants. What both committees and all government officials must understand, however, is that because of our past and existing emissions, the climate risks facing New Jersey will only worsen in the years ahead, with devastating impacts to our communities, economy, public health, and the daily lives of our residents if we are not prepared. All levels of government must act with concerted urgency to help communities adapt to the realities of climate change.
Both committees are convening almost one year after the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida brought New Jersey the deadliest floods in recent history. Thirty precious lives were needlessly lost. And, as we sit here, the State is experiencing its fourth heat wave of the season, and just this week I declared a statewide drought watch. These alarming conditions are precisely what climate scientists, including those at DEP, have been projecting and warning policymakers about. New Jersey’s changing climate is forcing residents and businesses to grapple with a world of worsening extremes: periods of incredibly hot, dry conditions that stress our water supplies, crop yield, and public health, situated between periods of frequent and intense rainfalls that overwhelm our aging and undersized infrastructure, causing extreme flooding, destroying property, and costing lives.
Events within the last two months alone should make it obvious that our state is struggling to reckon with the reality of climate change: (1) the sudden floods that struck Bergen County amid pre-drought conditions last month, (2) the arid conditions that are diminishing crop yield in farm-rich Salem County right now, (3) the largest wildfire in over a decade that destroyed over 15,000 acres in the Pinelands this June, and (4) the nine-mile-long harmful algal bloom that is infecting the Millstone River and complicating drinking water supplies in Central Jersey.
We are not yet ready. But, empowered by sound science and a willingness to make wise changes, we can get ready and help our communities, residents, and businesses become more resilient to the continuing climate changes that lie ahead.
Given the coming anniversary of Ida, let us honor those thirty lives we so needlessly lost and focus today on just one of these climate resilience challenges: extreme weather and flooding.
Reducing Climate Change Risks from Inland Flooding and Sea-level Rise
Remnants of Tropical Storm Ida
Ida wrought widespread destruction upon the State of New Jersey, resulting in losses of life, property, and significant damage to homes, communities, businesses, infrastructure, and other public and private assets in more than half of New Jersey’s counties. The storm produced devastating tornados in central and southern New Jersey and extreme amounts of rainfall and flooding, especially in the northern areas of the State. Rainfall totals from the remnants of Ida exceeded prior monthly precipitation averages by two to three times in many places. Several municipalities recorded more than 10 inches of rain over the course of the storm event and six rainfall gauge stations exceeded 6.51 inches of rainfall over a three-hour interval, meeting or exceeding the 500-year average recurrence interval at these gauge locations for this short-duration and intense precipitation event.3 In Newark, the State’s most populous city with approximately 280,000 residents, communities suffered over 8 inches of rainfall—more than double the expected monthly rainfall—with 3.65 inches of rain falling in one hour. Ten other weather stations in New Jersey exceeded an hourly precipitation rate of 2.50 inches during this storm.
These staggering rainfall totals, the bulk of which occurred over a six-hour period, caused creeks and rivers to rise and overtop, and overwhelmed inadequate stormwater management systems with damaging and tragic results to public health, welfare, and safety across the state. Thirty lives were lost, residents reported injuries, and buildings and infrastructure were severely damaged—some beyond repair. Numerous people were stranded in homes and many businesses were shuttered for extended periods of time. Dangerous flash flooding conditions left motorists stranded in flood waters. Emergency responders risked their lives to protect those threatened by floodwaters. The thirty New Jersey residents lost to Ida, the majority to drowning, made this the State’s second deadliest natural disaster in the past century.
Ida was not an anomaly. It was a continuation of a pattern of worsening climate impacts. Immediately preceding Ida, in August 2021 we had the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred and Tropical Depression Henri, both of which resulted in significant rainfall throughout the State. And just before those, New Jersey experienced the wettest July since 1975 and second wettest July in almost 50 years, with rain totals averaging 3.44 inches above normal in northern New Jersey and 2.62 inches above normal in the southern counties, according to the State Climatologist.
Regulatory Reform to Reduce Risks of Inland Flooding and Sea-Level Rise
As of 2019, New Jersey ranked third in the nation in claims paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency since 1978, with $5.8 billion in total flood insurance claims.4 However, flood risk extends beyond the boundaries mapped by FEMA, with 38.5% of claims from Henri and 31% of claims from Ida originating outside of the FEMA designated areas. Flood damage is not neatly confined to areas previously understood to be at risk, in part because the last data point used to determine flood risk is from 1999. The reality is that current methodologies for determining flood hazard areas and managing stormwater are inherently backward-looking. The precipitation data that drives development and infrastructure does not account for either current conditions or the expected impacts of climate change on precipitation events.
Recent analyses of New Jersey-specific precipitation data confirms that annual and short-duration intense precipitation is increasing across New Jersey and will continue to increase through the end of the century.5 Since 1999, New Jersey has experienced an increase in precipitation between 2 and 10 percent, which varies geographically. Projecting forward, the increase will grow from 20 to 50 percent more precipitation in the coming decades.
Early in his administration, Governor Phil Murphy recognized that the State must take deliberate action to ensure that climate risks were better understood and reduced. Under Executive Order 100, the Governor charged DEP with updating environmental land use rules under a regulatory reform initiative that we call Resilient Environments and Landscapes or REAL—a component of our New Jersey Protecting Against Climate Threats (NJPACT) initiative. The REAL reforms acknowledge that our state’s rules flood hazard and stormwater management rules are based on obsolete precipitation data and do not account for sea-level rise. In the absence of amendments to these rules, the reconstruction of storm-damaged buildings and infrastructure, as well as new investments in private and public assets, would be constructed to standards that are already outdated and will only become more so as the State’s flood risks continue to worsen. This would leave New Jersey residents vulnerable to harm and new investments subject to continued repetitive loss.
As New Jersey continues to experience increases in inland flooding as seen during Ida, our coastal areas are at greater risk from sea-level rise and storm surge. In fact, sea levels are increasing at a greater rate in New Jersey than most other parts of the world. It is likely that sea-level rise will meet or exceed 2.1 feet by 2050 and increase to 5.1 feet by the end of the century. “Sunny-day flooding” will occur more often across the entire coastal area with Atlantic City experiencing “sunny-day flooding” 95 days a year and a 50 percent chance it will experience 355 days a year by 2100.
Increases in extreme precipitation, sea-level rise, and storm surge represent a significant additional risk that our residents will face within the life of a typical mortgage. These risks will only grow in the years to come, and we are not prepared. Especially as we greet considerable new investment from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and anticipated ancillary growth, we must ensure that our investments are built to stand the test of time amidst a changing climate.
This is the spirit and intent that underlies DEP’s regulatory efforts. When complete, the REAL rules will help ensure that both inland and coastal flood hazard areas are better delineated and that new and reconstructed assets in these areas are designed and constructed using the best available climate-informed precipitation and sea-level rise data to adequately protect our assets, economy and, above all, our people from the catastrophic effects of worsening flooding.
New Jersey Must Invest in a Network of Climate Resilience Solutions
It is important that both committees, all levels of government, and the public understand that there is no one silver bullet that will protect every community from the increasing risks of climate change, extreme weather, and flooding. There is, however, a network of solutions that will ensure the resilience of our communities and economies in the face of a changing climate.
In short, the resilience menu is large, and we must invest in each course. The answer to our flooding and water quality challenges lies in improving the management of our interconnected watersheds. How we develop, conserve, and manage property, and the water that runs off it, has implications for our neighbors. Our penchant for focusing on single-lot developments often leads us to take this connectivity for granted, with sometimes significant consequences for both flood risk and water quality, as we saw with Ida. Management practices that see beyond property and municipal boundaries, like regional watershed planning and the establishment of stormwater utilities, are one of our best defenses against flooding. But the benefits do not stop there. These initiatives leverage the connectedness of our communities and environment to reduce polluted surface runoff that impairs our drinking water sources, diminishes recreational opportunities, and harms waterfront businesses that rely on pristine waters that drive tourism.
Moving forward, the State’s climate resilience efforts must focus on at least four key areas:
- Engineered & Natural Resilience Infrastructure. Working with the Army Corps of Engineers, the State must continue to match and facilitate new federal investments in flood control infrastructure. For example, the federal government recently committed more than $1 billion in the study, design and construction of hard infrastructure projects in some of New Jersey’s most flood-prone watersheds. And, the Fiscal Year 2023 budget includes more than $60 million for continued investments in shore protection and flood control projects. Yet, these infrastructure projects represent an overall small amount of protection in few places, and they will take many years, even decades to complete, at tremendous cost. We cannot rely on hard flood control infrastructure or beach replenishment alone to meet our climate resilience needs. We need buy-in and participation from each municipality to undertake localized action that best fits the needs of their community. We must also protect and enhance the resilience of our ecological systems, which not only provide us with benefits like reduced flooding, weakened wave force, reduced heat, and carbon absorption, but also provide critical habitat and resources that are vital to the well-being of the State’s biodiversity.
- Climate Resilience Planning. To truly address our resilience needs we must engage in climate resilience planning at the regional and community levels. This requires more planning resources to support the development of community-specific, science-based strategies and actions that will protect homes, businesses, critical infrastructure, and natural resources. Holistic climate resilience planning will enable communities to identify where financial resources are best deployed, including where flood infrastructure, stormwater improvements, or Blue Acres buyouts would be best positioned in a given community.
- Blue Acres Buyouts. We must continue to support the DEP Blue Acres Buyout Program and ensure that it is used not only as a reactive disaster recovery tool, but proactively to help to get families out of harm’s way while creating more storage for increasing flood waters, which can have dual benefits for communities as new parklands or open space.
- Modernizing Flood Standards and Stormwater Management. As discussed, we must ensure that new investments in buildings and infrastructure will stand the test of time and a changing climate by modernizing the state’s flood hazard and stormwater rules. In addition, consistent, ongoing investment in right-sizing stormwater infrastructure will ensure that communities withstand the bigger storms of today and tomorrow. This includes the adoption of stormwater utilities, building green infrastructure, enhancing existing infrastructure, and restoring riparian areas.
Through climate resilience planning, wise investment, and supportive regulatory reform, we can help all New Jersey communities face the challenges before us. But to meaningfully confront them, leaders must focus on the long-term growth and protection of our communities. We must commit ourselves to actions and investments that will take time to show their benefits—just as a warming climate took time to show us its fury. We must acknowledge that it may not be possible to measure our success in the next budget or on the next ballot. We must have confidence that our success will be measured in the safety, security, and resilience we leave our children and the communities they inherit.
Audio of Commissioner LaTourette’s remarks: https://njparksandforests.org/jimmy/commissionerlatourette-climatechangeadaptation-and-coastalresiliency.zip
Photos from today’s joint meeting:
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is dedicated to protecting New Jersey’s environment and public health. The agency prioritizes addressing climate change, protecting New Jersey’s water, revitalizing its communities and managing and promoting its natural and historic resources.
Follow Commissioner LaTourette on Twitter and Instagram @shawnlatur.