Rahway, NJ – Urban Floodplain Restoration

When communities begin tackling problems of flooding and environmental degradation, starting small – creating one or two pilot projects – might prove more effective than starting with an extensive planning and design process. In the early 2000s, the City of Rahway, New Jersey, created a small park for floodplain restoration which proved effective in reducing property loss and restoring ecosystem functions. The success of this project prompted the creation of a greenway master plan and built public support for a broad range of sustainability-minded initiatives in the city.

Project Summary

After years of battling small flooding events, the suburban community of Rahway, New Jersey, began looking to natural systems to help control flooding. The small, tidally influenced Rahway River runs through the center of the community. The hydrology of the river has changed drastically since it was first surveyed in 1922, and due to loss of wetlands, channelization, and increased impervious surfaces, frequent flash floods are now problematic in the floodplain.

In 1994, after enduring repetitive flooding, homeowners along a particularly vulnerable section of the river basin began asking the city for a buyout. In 2000, the City of Rahway purchased and demolished repetitive loss homes through a voluntary process with grants from FEMA and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Projection Green Acres program. The land, originally a natural wetland and located across the river from a preexisting city park was used to create a small greenway, named the Michael S. Bezega Wetland Observation Park (also known as the Union/Allen Street conservation area). The new park aimed to restore the land to a natural floodway form, providing flood control services and creating habitat for native fish and wildlife species. Shallow ponds were constructed to temporarily detain floodwater; native trees, scrubs, and herbaceous plants were planted; and soils were amended throughout the park to create flood-tolerant forests and meadows.

Construction of the 4.45 acre (1.8 ha) park began in 2002 and was completed in the fall of 2005. Partnerships between the city, county, civic organizations, educational institutions, non-profits, and a local church contributed to the design, building, and maintenance of the restoration site. Citizens fulfilling court-ordered community service through the Sherriff’s Labor Assistant Program worked on the project, saving the city a considerable amount of labor costs for construction.

To gauge the success of the floodplain restoration at the Michael S. Bezega Wetland Observation Park, monitoring has been carried out by college students through a partnership between the city, Rutgers University, and the non-profit group Rahway River Association. Although this particular project might have seemed too small to accomplish any major goals, monitoring has shown that the park is an effective form of flood mitigation and has been successful in restoring wildlife habitat. Within two years, water quality improvements and a fast recolonization by native species was observed. Additionally, the site provides educational and recreational opportunities for the community through the incorporation of walking trails and a wildlife observation area.

Due to the success of this small floodplain restoration, the city commissioned Rutgers University’s planning school to create the Rahway River Greenway Master Plan in 2008 to outline a vision for the entire Rahway River corridor. The recommendations from the professors and students were well received and incorporated into the city’s master plan in 2010 in addition to other measures to improve the city’s sustainability. Approximately 5,000 acres of parkland in Essex and Union counties are located within the Rahway River basin. The Michael S. Bezega Wetland Observation Park and the Rahway River Greenway Master Plan will help link together natural areas along the river to create a regional greenway and improve flood control in this highly-urbanized part of the country.

Plan Highlights

Environment

Rahway is located on a tidally-influenced river which can experience flooding from rain, run-off, and storm surges. Heavy urbanization has led to development in the floodway and also the destruction of the riparian ecosystem, which supported many native plants and animals. The Michael S. Bezega Wetland Observation Park addresses both needs: to control flooding and to provide habitat for native species. Working with researchers at Rutgers helped ensure the design was ecologically sound and the project’s success or failure was rigorously monitored.

  • Although the initial goal of the project was to control flooding, the incorporation of ecosystem restoration improved the flood control capabilities of the landscape and increased use and enjoyment of the area by residents and native animal species.
  • Monitoring of the project helped inform future actions and guided long-term planning for the Rahway River corridor through the city.

Community

Implementing flood mitigation projects can be costly and time consuming. Often small city governments lack the funds and personnel to implement such projects.

  • By partnering with a local university, civic groups, and the Sheriff’s department, the City of Rahway not only reduced construction and maintenance costs, but also helped create a sense of ownership and excitement for the park in the bordering community, adding to the success of the project.

Infrastructure

Rahway was facing a flooding problem that could be addressed through different infrastructure measures: from traditional, engineered solutions to green infrastructure, to a combination of both.

  • The project is an example of the use of green infrastructure, as it utilizes the natural water storage capabilities of wetland plants and soils to accomplish flood control goals. The park also includes recreational walking and biking infrastructure.
  • Scientifically calculated water budgets for local flooding from runoff and inundation from the river were used to design the water detention areas in the park.
  • Runoff from surrounding streets and parking lots is rerouted through wetlands in the park, flowing through a series of meadows of flood-tolerant plants, shallow ponds, and scrub-shrub wetlands before discharging into the river. Much of the stormwater is infiltrated into the soil or evaporates in the process, reducing flow into the river.
  • Filtering runoff through wetlands reduces nonpoint source water pollution that would have entered the river.
  • Minor alterations to the elevation of the park allow river floodwaters to enter the wetland detention areas and drain out slowly over several days to reduce flash flooding.
  • A walking and cycling trail through the park connects it to another recreational trail that follows the river.
  • The success of the park inspired efforts to create a regional greenway following the entire length of the Rahway River.

Lessons Learned

The City of Rahway, with financial support from FEMA and the State of New Jersey, acquired a small number of flood-prone homes to create a park around a tidally-influenced river that often floods after heavy rainfalls or strong coastal storms. The strategy has two outcome goals: to remove residents from harm’s way through voluntary property buyouts, and to create passive recreational features for the enjoyment of all city residents. Several other featured case studies present large-scale, city-wide and regional projects for floodplain restoration and greenway creation, such as Tulsa, OK, Boulder, CO, and Travis County, TX. On the other hand, Rahway, NJ did not have the financial resources to implement large flood control projects such as the other featured communities, nor does it necessarily need projects of that scale. This example from Rahway can be examined as a starting point for restoring urbanized floodways, which could lead to regional greenway projects. It can also serve as an example to communities with localized flooding issues only needing a small project to serve their flood mitigation needs. By soliciting assistance from the community, including the Rahway River Association, Rutgers University, Boy Scout troops, volunteers, and workers through the Sheriff’s Labor Assistance Program, the city was able to minimize expenses and still create a park that benefits residents, enhances the natural environment, and reduces flooding losses along the Rahway River.

The local economies of many Louisiana communities are tied to their natural resources. Fishing and hunting are important economic and recreational activities throughout the state; therefore, implementing flood protection projects that benefit humans as well the natural environment would be smart choices for Louisiana’s communities. With many organizations interested in coastal restoration and hurricane recovery, it would not be difficult for Louisiana municipalities to develop partnerships with groups that could help offset costs for the planning, construction, and monitoring of projects similar to what has been accomplished in Rahway, New Jersey.