Camden has a few things in common with the likes of New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. It is an old city, its sewer system ingests both rainwater and sewage, and it is susceptible to heavy rains — especially recently.
Even an inch of rain can overwhelm Camden’s aging and too-narrow pipes, leaving water pooled on major roads, making lakes of parking lots, and sending sewage into homes, parks, and waterways.
The city’s flooding woes have been evident as the region has been deluged by a sequence of downpours, with as much as 6.5 inches falling on June 20.
In the Garden State, stormwater management is “a long-standing problem” for many of the state’s municipalities, said Matthew Watkins, president of the New Jersey Municipal Management Association.
And officials have to find solutions because the problem is only getting worse.
The region just experienced its wettest decade in records dating to 1872 — an average of nearly 54 inches of rain a year from 2009 to 2018, according to National Weather Service measurements at the Philadelphia International Airport. Meanwhile, developments continue to expand and paved surfaces proliferate, generating runoff and blocking flowing water from soaking into the ground. It all has to go somewhere.
“The overriding issue is this is another major infrastructure expense that municipalities must reconcile themselves with,” Watkins said.
A tool that may help some communities is a law that Gov. Phil Murphy signed in March that allows municipalities and counties to create stormwater utilities.
These agencies would be authorized to charge fees to property owners with large paved surfaces where rainwater runs off in currents instead of absorbing into the earth. Examples include shopping centers, office parks, and supermarkets. Local governments could use the fees to fund stormwater management.
Local officials "haven’t been able to deal with the problems. You have a very constricted municipal budget,” said State Sen. Bob Smith (D., Piscataway), who cosponsored the legislation. “A lot of cities are trying to un-combine their sewers and this would be a way to do that.”
Smith anticipates that the first local governments could form stormwater utilities as soon as early next year.
Local governments have been trying their own solutions for decades.
Nearly a decade ago, Camden teamed up with Camden County, the state, Rutgers University, and local organizations to use green infrastructure to help address its problems. The Camden SMART Initiative has added 175 acres of parks and rain gardens by de-paving parts of the city to try to soak up rainwater that otherwise runs off pavement and floods areas when it pools.
“Our aim is to eliminate the flooding problem but also green the city as we go,” said Andy Kricun, executive director and chief engineer of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, which treats sewage from 37 municipalities.
Officials anticipate the county’s and city’s plans to install more green infrastructure, unclog and upgrade the city’s pipes, and expand the wastewater treatment plant will eliminate 90 percent of flooding by the end of 2020.
Persistent stormwater problems that local governments face “really can be dealt with if there is an intentionality around doing so,” Kricun said.
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To try to control stormwater runoff and prevent flooding during rainfalls, towns have turned to breaking up abandoned paved areas; building parks and gardens instead of allowing development in areas that repeatedly flood; restricting certain types of new development; offering incentives to developers who meet conditions to help absorb rainwater; and building infrastructure that can stand up to rising waters, such as raised streets and bridges.
Fundamentally, officials need to reconsider how much of their communities need to be paved surfaces, said Robert Traver, director of the Villanova Urban Stormwater Partnership.
“It’s kind of sad that sometimes we’re creating our own problems,” he said.
Philadelphia is testing water-absorbent porous pavement on about 30 blocks and a Water Department employee parking lot, said Marc Cammarata, deputy water commissioner for planning and environmental services for the Philadelphia Water Department.
The city is landscaping what were once rail tracks on North American Street in North Philadelphia.
"An important thing to recognize is this work is really hard and really expensive,” said Nathan Boon, senior program officer of the watershed protection program at the William Penn Foundation.
Philadelphia had spent more than $300 million on green infrastructure projects, as of June 2018. The city is active in the Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange, a group of communities across the country and Canada that are turning to nature — such as planting grass and plants in parking lots and on roofs — and learning from each other how to deal with storm water runoff.
City officials have taken tips from Chicago, Seattle, and Portland, Ore. It’s helped Camden develop its green infrastructure plans.
“We will never solve flooding," said Cammarata. "But we can mitigate the impact of flood damage.”
This story has been updated to correct the type of tracks on North American Street. They were rail tracks, not trolley tracks.