Dam removals in New Jersey – how did we get here?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd in 1999, it became painfully evident that the many dams in and around the state were woefully obsolete. Obsolescence occurs on a dam when it, either through climactic changes or antiquated designs, is unable to safely pass those infrequent yet highly destructive floods. Obsolescence can also occur when earthen embankments or concrete structures have deteriorated to the point of no longer providing safe resistance to seepage and impounding water behind the dam. The threat to the public living in the path of a potential flood wave that results when a dam suddenly bursts is varied but can have serious consequences and liabilities for dam owners.

Following the hurricane, the NJDEP Bureau of Dam Safety sent letters to all the dam owners in their records reminding them of their obligation to maintain their regulated structures in compliance with the Dam Safety Regulations. It was serendipitous that, at the same time, American Rivers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) started a program called the “Community-Based Restoration Program River Grants,” whereby grants were made available to remove obsolete dams to allow for migratory fish passage. The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) at the same time started looking to dam removals as meeting the restoration criteria for their funding programs.

These sources of funding were serendipitous as “dam safety compliance” not only means the renovation of a dam to meet current standards, but the elimination of the structure altogether is a means of compliance: no dam, no regulatory requirements. This grant opportunity opened up a whole new set of funding sources for dam owners that did not have the wherewithal or desire to maintain a highly regulated and risky structure.

The first dam to fall in the state for the benefits of dam safety compliance and migratory fish passage was the Harry Pursel Dam on the Lopatcong Creek in Phillipsburg in 2001. The next dams were the Gruendyke Mill Dam and Seber Dam on the Musconetcong River in Hackettstown under the leadership of the Musconetcong Watershed Association in the mid-2000s. Princeton Hydro was proud to be a part of each of those removals, and so many others – from North Carolina to Vermont.

Momentum for the removal of the thousands of obsolete dams across the country has increased; New Jersey has no dearth of them. There are plenty. However, as the recent economic recession has hit the private sector, so too has it impacted the availability of government funds to restore natural resources for the public good. Fortunately, other vehicles have been developed to fund dam removals.

In the past several years, Princeton Hydro completed the first dam removals used for the purpose of offsetting wetlands impacts, through projects in Hunterdon and Ocean County. Now, others are following in the path cleared by these projects to boldly use dam removal for the mitigation of wetlands impacts and other types of natural resource damages.  NJDEP is formally in favor of removing dams in the name of restoration, and is even encouraging the removal of obsolete dams as such projects achieve many positive public safety and environmental goals.

It will be vitally important to maintain creativity for funding opportunities and promote public awareness of the importance of dam removal as a cost effective restoration tool.  As a result, the removal of obsolete dams can continue well into the future. If you are interested in further understanding the regulations in NJ, benefits of removal, and examples illustrating dam removals, please visit the following sites:

American Rivers – Dam Removals in NJ
Other dam removal resources from American Rivers
Clearing House for Dam Removal Information

Geoffrey M. Goll, P.E.
Vice President and Founding Partner

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Natural Gas and Energy Independance

Originally posted January 24, 2013 at phfieldnotes.blogspot.com.

On Monday, Jeff Rubin of The Globe and Mail asked the question, “Is there water enough for U.S. to frack its way to energy independence?”

I can’t consider the water footprint of energy independence without considering the folly in the notion of “energy independence”. First, the US consumes far more oil per day than we produce (15 million barrel (MB) versus 6 MB, respectively). At our historical peak output in the 1970s, US daily oil production was <12 MB. New finds (i.e., including oil associated with “unconventional” production methods) amount to ~0.5MB/day with no robust sense of how long such production rates can be sustained.

Second, there is a disconnect between terms such as resources, reserves, and supply; actual supply is the only meaningful parameter and domestic supply is, as indicated in first point, woefully short of consumption. Moreover, there is incontrovertible historical evidence that GDP growth requires growth in oil consumption.

Third, there is a massive cost associated with transforming our economy and culture from liquid transportation fuel (read: oil-based) to anything else. Changing US oil infrastructure necessitates transforming a $100T (trillion) industry with a 150 year history. Despite whatever short-term run-ups in natural gas (NG) production that are occurring due to unconventional sources (read: shale), there is no realistic probability that our economy can shift from oil to NG. There are spot plans to shift some electricity generation from coal to NG based on combination of NG pricing and disincentives of government regulation (i.e., curb air pollution), but such shifts will not result in net difference to energy independence since we do not import coal.

Fourth, oil, NG, and coal dominate (~60-65%) our energy consumption mix with nuclear providing another 10-12%. There is no meaningful way I can envision in which something else (wind, solar, hydro, biofuel) displaces our traditional energy mix, let alone something like NG nudging oil from its pre-eminent hold.

There’s no question that water is intrinsically tied to our energy portfolio and as energy supplies become tighter, more pressure will be brought on water and other “environmental” resources. But I think it’s disingenuous to pit water/environment versus energy. The reality is interdependence.

James Shallenberger, P.G.
Senior Geologist/Ecologist

James is also the author of, “The Marcellus Shale: Balancing Energy and Environmental Resource Interests.”

Environmentally Friendly Marcellus Shale Drilling?

Originally posted March 23, 2011 at phfieldnotes.blogspot.com.

Concerns over the negative effects to air, water, wildlife habitat, and land use are shaping one side of the public debate about U.S. domestic natural gas exploration and production – and Pennsylvania is at the cross roads of this subject. The Marcellus region is one of the country’s fastest-growing onshore gas production provinces.

While the number of wells is swelling, profits are falling; amid it all, the environment is being compromised. Regulations need to catch up with the gold rush to prevent further degradation to our precious land and water resources. There are a number of low-impact approaches to exploration and production to prevent natural resource damages including:

Use of Geographic Information System
Utilize(GIS) spatial mapping tools to minimize impacts.

Apply technologies that reduce waste
High volume fracking generates high volumes of wastewater that requires treatment when brought to the land surface. In-field and centralized processing plants enable re-use of gas field fluids.

Manage water resources sustainably
High volume fracking can require 3 to 5 million gallons of water per well. To reduce potential impacts of water diversion, plan for sources that lessen competition.

Limit disturbance effects
Reduce pad footprint size, deploy temporary drilling platforms, use small diameter drilling techniques, consider piping rather than trucking water to/from sites, minimize steep slopes and stream crossings for roads, deploy open-bottom culverts.

Implement sound restoration design
Minimize initial cut/ fill grading, restore land contours, remove pit liners and solid residue, employ “disappearing” road methods, re-meadow and re-forest with native plants, and apply performance standards for restoration outcome.

James Shallenberger, P.G.
Senior Geologist/Ecologist

Risk Awareness – Your Flood Preparation First Step

Originally posted March 10, 2011 at phfieldnotes.blogspot.com.

The New York and Philadelphia metro regions are experiencing two significant and consecutive rain events in a week and people are again concerned about how to assess vulnerability to flooding and how impending flooding compares to previous floods. The Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service is a tool used by local and state offices of emergency management and provides past, current and updated river projections.

You can access this too; the website is http://water.weather.gov/ahps/. Click on an area of the country and you will be moved to a Weather Forecast Office region – for the New York and Philadelphia region, you want the Philadelphia/Mt. Holly NJ region. This screen shows the current status of gages by color. Next click on one of the forecast points and the individual gage will appear. You will observe the current stage of the river in blue, the predicted stage through time in green and, scrolling down, a list of past major events and corresponding flood elevation to place the forecast into perspective. As a citizen, this tool provides information so that you can take appropriate action in moving valuables to higher ground and implement your flood plan. For more on a flood plan, see the website Focus on Floods: http://focusonfloods.org/.

Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service forecasts are updated as data becomes available and not before modeling is completed every six hours. At the bottom of the chart, the forecast time is posted and, unless an unusual situation develops, look for the next update six hours thereafter. It is important to realize that especially with early predictions, the modeling is performed on estimated rainfall. As rainfall is recorded by Doppler radar and rain gauges, and stream gages register the change in the stream stage, the model is refined. Times of peak stage and peak elevation will change over time and it is important to monitor. Also, you should heed the notices from your local emergency management coordinator as he or she is monitoring additional data and may have instructions for your safety – communities will have ways to communicate instructions though email, website and, if needing higher attention, reverse 911.

Risk awareness is your first step to prepare for a flood, and importantly, guides what mitigation or adaptation you can do to reduce your susceptibility to flooding in the future. Most often, the urge to improve resiliency is strongest immediately after a flood. Take advantage of this time, for in the next flood, you will be more confident in weathering the storm.

John A. Miller, PE, CFM, CSM
Water Resources Engineer

Really, it’s the least we could do.

Originally posted August 27, 2010 at phfieldnotes.blogspot.com.

There has been a growing number of people realizing that sustainable stormwater design can fill another very important function: habitat creation. In many regions where open space it at a premium and the creation of green space in urban areas has become paramount, using stormwater management facilities – large and small – to provide precious habitat opportunities is making more and more sense. In fact, some would argue (us included) that it’s a no-brainer.

Beyond planting with natives, maintaining naturalized stormwater facilities reduces reliance on fossil fuels, improves air quality, maximizes pollution reduction, and can provide increased infiltration. Sadly, the push back to naturalization can be fierce. Concerns that anything but closely cropped lawn will harbor threats to human health and well-being are far-ranging – we’ve heard it all: rats, snakes, pollen (gasp!), and perverts. Yes; perverts.

Sadly, the sterilization of our environment has led to the widespread collapse of ecosystems and left us engaged in an endless war with invasive species. Humanity’s lack of understanding that we rely on a healthy environment for our own health and well-being is quickly sending us down a slippery slope; once we lower our species diversity and richness, it won’t recover in this millennium.

The least we could do is offer up our stormwater spaces to buck the trend.

Lauren Kovacs, LEED AP
Environmental Designer

Long Term Effects of the BP Spill

Originally posted online June 15, 2010 at phfieldnotes.blogspot.com.

In his paper titled “The Deepwater Horizon Accident,” James Shallenberger goes into great detail about the events leading up to the BP disaster, techniques to repair or close the well and ways to minimize current the effects and anticipated environmental impacts of the spill.

While we are inundated with horrific images of oiled animals and the immediate consequences to wildlife are indeed dire, there is reason to believe that the Gulf Coast’s natural systems may rebound relatively quickly from the initial effects of the spill.   Gulf of Mexico crude oil, in general, is enriched in light weight compounds that readily evaporate and dissolve in water.  The initial effects of spilled crude oil on wildlife are severe because oiling physically suffocates and reduces animal mobility, interferes with body temperature regulation, and light-weight hydrocarbons are more acutely toxic than heavier weight compounds.  However, weathering processes considerably and quickly reduce the toxicity of crude oil and the year-round warm climate and biologically productive environment of the Gulf region will aid in the break-down of oil (in contrast to the heavier Alaskan North Slope crude oil and colder climate associated with the Alaskan Exxon Valdez oil spill into Prince William Sound).

Typically, early life stages are more sensitive to toxic exposure than adults.  The resiliency of natural systems is tied to how quickly the surviving community members can reproduce and recruit their next generations.  The BP oil spill impacts will be most lasting for those populations that include long-lived organisms that reproduce slowly – like sea turtles, marine mammals, some birds – and for those with life history needs that make them unable to avoid exposure at critical periods to the persistent toxic substances found in oil spill residue, like those that live, incubate eggs, and forage within the intertidal zones of beaches and marshes.

Unfortunately, the economic and cultural effects of the oil spill may be as or more devastating, lasting, and far-reaching.  The human communities of the Gulf Coast, some with unique and deep-rooted local traditions that are intimately tied to the Gulf environment, will succumb to the immediate and near-term effects of the spill – and BP may never be able to sufficiently compensate for those loses.

James Shallenberger, P.G.
Senior Geologist/Ecologist

DRN NJ Stormwater Management Implementation Report

Originally posted May 24, 2010 at phfieldnotes.blogspot.com.

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN) released their new report critiquing the implementation of New Jersey’s Stormwater Management Rules at municipal and state levels. Detailed reviews conducted of stormwater projects in Hamilton Township, Mercer County revealed serious shortcomings in compliance with the Rules and the report goes on to state that the DRN believes that the poor stormwater reviews in Hamilton Township are not the exception but the rule. The report provides detailed technical reviews for many of the projects to substantiate the report’s claims as well as provides a list of recommendations on how to remedy the problem.

The report implicates local, state and federal agencies as ineffectual to enforce the Clean Water Act to protect water resources and specifically sites environmental justice issues in the failure to enforce the Rules. The DRN recommendations range from the education of land use board members on the Rules to requiring true audits of the permit program by both the NJDEP and EPA.

In light of the EPA’s landmark settlement with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and co-plaintiffs with a “legally enforceable commitment that requires EPA to take specific actions by dates certain to ensure that pollution to local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay is reduced sufficiently to remove the Bay from the federal “dirty waters” list,” this report highlights the legal responsibility of these agencies to protect water resources.

The full report can be found here: http://delawareriverkeeper.org/resources/Reports/Hamilton_Twp_NJ_SWM_Implementation_Report.pdf