Flood Damage, Precipitation and Policies in New Jersey’s Bergen County

Flood damage is an occasional problem in Bergen County, New Jersey. While some attribute every natural disaster to global warming, the reality is more complex. Many natural disaster are influenced by other factors, and even experts have difficulty attributing extreme weather to global warming. Flooding has worsened in Bergen County because of local land use changes. Flood damage in Bergen County is also a result of building homes on floodplains.

Colonial settlers and early Americans relied heavily on river transportation to get goods to markets. They used water wheels on river banks to mill grains. Food plains had fertile soil that accommodates family farms. For these reasons, many New Jersey villages were built near rivers with a history of flooding.

Two construction booms changed the landscape of Bergen County in the 20th century. The first boom was during the 1920s. It included densely populated neighborhoods with multistory buildings and train transportation. The second boom followed World War II. A switch from trains to cars, and laws that limited buildings to two stories, resulted in lower density neighborhoods that took up every available lot, even those that were prone to flooding.

Sprawling developments increased the amount of impervious surface in the watershed, which in turn increased runoff and flooding. Towns in Bergen County have a mixture of hills, glens and riverbanks. The simplest solution to flooding is to build high rises on the hills and let the flood-prone areas revert to nature. It is also possible to raise the buildings in flood-prone areas on stilts. The space below these raised buildings can accommodate parking.

Unfortunately, building restrictions make high rises or homes on stilts impossible in most of Bergen County; however, one Bergen County freeholder voiced support for blue space funding that would allow towns to purchase flood plans and convert them into parks. The blue space funding is a good start, but the people currently living near rivers need new homes on higher land to move into. Liberalizing the building codes would allow developers to create these desperately needed homes.