Levee Inspections Along the Elizabeth River

Ursino Dam on the Elizabeth River in Union County, New Jersey is one of the sites Princeton Hydro inspected for flood control, ensuring the system is providing the level of protection it was designed to deliver.

By Brendon Achey, Princeton Hydro’s Lead Geologist; Soils Laboratory Manager; Project Manager

Located 20 miles southwest of New York City, the City of Elizabeth, New Jersey, is situated along the Elizabeth River. For the city’s 125,000 residents, living along the river has many benefits, but the benefits are not without flood risk. In order to manage the risk associated with potential flooding, a series of levees and floodwalls were installed along the banks of the Elizabeth River. A levee is an embankment that is constructed to prevent overflow from a river. They are a crucial element for protecting cities from disastrous flooding, and as such they require periodic inspections to ensure that all components are functioning properly.

Princeton Hydro was contracted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District (USACE NYD) to perform rigorous flood control project inspections (i.e., “Periodic Inspections”) for the four levee systems located along the Elizabeth River.  For this project, our team inspected over 17,000 linear feet of levee embankment and 2,500 linear feet of floodwall.

Levee systems are comprised of components which collectively provide flood risk management to a defined area. These components can include levees, structural floodwalls, closure gates, pumping stations, culverts, and interior drainage works. These components are interconnected and collectively ensure the protection of development and/or infrastructure that is situated within a floodplain. Failure of just one critical component within a system could constitute an overall system failure. During Hurricane Katrina, for example, dozens of levees were destroyed, leaving the Louisiana coast with billions of dollars in damage and over one thousand lives lost.

Periodic inspections are necessary in order to ensure a levee system will perform as expected. They are also needed to identify deficiencies in the levee, or areas that need monitoring or immediate repair. Critically important maintenance activities include continuously assessing the integrity of the levee system to identify changes over time, collecting information to help inform decisions about future actions, and providing the public with information about the levees on which they rely.

Levee Inspection Process

Periodic inspections are extremely comprehensive and include three key steps: data collection, field inspection, and development of a final report.

Data Collection

Prior to conducting field inspections, Princeton Hydro’s engineers evaluated the Elizabeth River levee system’s documented design criteria. This evaluation was conducted to assess the ability of each feature and the overall system to function as authorized, and also to identify any potential need to update the system design. Princeton Hydro teamed with HDR to carry out the inspections. A comprehensive review of existing data on operation and maintenance, previous inspections, emergency action plans, and flood fighting records was also performed.

Field Inspection

The Princeton Hydro field inspection team consisted of geotechnical, water resource, mechanical, structural, and electrical engineers. Detailed inspections were performed on each segment of each levee system.  This included the detailed inspection and documentation of over 17,000 linear feet of levee embankment, over 2,500 linear feet of floodwall, four pumping stations, 29 interior drainage structures, five closure gates, and various other encroachments and facilities. Princeton Hydro identified, evaluated, and rated the state of each of these system elements. As part of this field inspection task, Princeton Hydro utilized a state-of-the-art tablet and GIS technology in order to field-locate inspection points and record item ratings. This digital collection of data helps expedite data processing and ensures higher levels of accuracy.

Development of Final Report

Princeton Hydro prepared a Periodic Inspection Report for each of the four levee systems inspected, which included the results of the design document review, methods and results of the field inspection, a summary of areas/items of concern, a preliminary engineering assessment of causes of distress or abnormal conditions, and recommendations for remedial actions to address identified concerns. Final report development included briefing the USACE Levee Safety Officer (LSO) on our inspection findings, assigned ratings, and recommendations.

Levee inspections are vital to the longevity of levee systems and the safety of the communities they protect. By providing the municipalities with detailed inspection reports, effective repair and management programs can be designed and implemented efficiently. This helps to ensure the levee systems are providing the level of protection that they were designed to deliver.

Princeton Hydro’s Geoscience and Water Resource Engineering teams perform levee and dam inspections throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England Regions. For more info, visit: http://bit.ly/PHEngineering

Brendon Achey provides a wide range of technical skills and services for Princeton Hydro. His responsibilities include: project management, preparation and quality control of technical deliverables, geotechnical investigations and analysis, groundwater hydrology, soil sampling plan design and implementation, and site characterization. He is responsible for managing the daily operations of the AASHTO accredited and USACE validated soil testing laboratory. In addition to laboratory testing and analysis, Brendon is responsible for analyzing results in support of geotechnical and stormwater management design evaluations. This may include bearing capacity and settlement analysis of both shallow and deep foundations, retaining wall design, and recommendations for stormwater management practices.

Two-Part Blog Series: Flood Assessment, Mitigation & Management

In this two part blog series, we showcase our work in the Moodna Creek Watershed in order to explore some of the concepts and methods used to estimate flood risk for existing conditions and the year 2050 and develop a flood management strategy (Part One), and traditional engineering and natural systems solutions used to manage and reduce flood risk (Part Two).

Part One: Flood Assessment & Mitigation Analysis in the Moodna Creek Watershed

The greater Moodna Creek watershed covers 180 square miles of eastern Orange County, NY. The watershed includes 22 municipalities and hundreds of streams before joining the Hudson River. This region has seen tremendous growth in recent years with the expansion of regional transit networks and critical infrastructure.

The Moodna Creek watershed can be split into two sub-basins — the Upper Moodna Creek and the Lower Moodna Creek. In the span of 15 months, Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, and Hurricane Sandy each have caused significant flooding throughout the Moodna Creek watershed, damaging public facilities, roadways, and private properties. Both sub-basin communities have noted a concern about increased flood risk as more development occurs.

As global temperatures rise, climate models are predicting more intense rainfall events. And, the flood risk for communities along waterways — like the Moodna Creek watershed — will likely increase as time passes. In order to understand existing and future risk from flood events in this flood-prone area, a flood risk management strategy needed to be developed. The strategy uses a cost-benefit analysis to review the feasibility of each measure and the overall impact in reducing flood risks.

With funds provided from a 2016 grant program sponsored by the New England Interstate Waters Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (NYCDEC) Hudson River Estuary Program (HEP), Princeton Hydro along with a variety of project partners completed a flood assessment and flood mitigation analysis specific to the Lower Moodna Creek watershed.

Let’s take a closer look at our work with the Lower Moodna Creek watershed, and explore some of the methods used to estimate flood risk and develop a flood management strategy:

Lower Moodna Creek Watershed Flood Assessment & Analysis

The primary Lower Moodna Creek project goals were to assess flood vulnerabilities and propose flood mitigation solutions that consider both traditional engineering strategies and natural systems solution approaches (land preservation, wetland/forest restoration, green infrastructure and green water management). The project team focused on ways to use the natural environment to reduce risk.  Instead of strictly focusing on just Moonda Creek, the team took a holistic approach which included all areas that drain into the river too. These analyses were incorporated into a Flood Assessment Master Plan and Flood Mitigation Plan, which will serve as a road map to reducing flooding issues within the watershed.

Managing Flood Risk

The first step in managing flood risk is to understand what type of exposure the communities face. The Moodna Creek project modeled flooding within the watershed during normal rain events, extreme rain events, and future rain events with two primary goals in mind:

Visual assessment being conducted in flood-prone areas of Moodna Creek Watershed.

  • Assess the facilities, infrastructure, and urban development that are at risk from flooding along the Moodna Creek and its tributaries within the study area.
  • Develop a series of hydrologic and hydraulic models to assess the extent of potential flooding from the 10-year (10%), 100-year (1%),  and 500-year (0.2%) storm recurrence intervals within the study area. The modeling includes flows for these storm events under existing conditions and also hypothetical scenarios with predicted increases in precipitation and population growth.

 

The project team used these models and data to propose and evaluate a series of design measures that help reduce and mitigate existing and anticipated flood risk within the study area. Where possible, the proposed solutions prioritized approaches that protect and/or mirror natural flood protection mechanisms within the watershed such as floodplain re-connection and wetland establishment. In addition to flood protection, the project components also provide water quality protection, aesthetics and recreation, pollutant reduction, and wildlife habitat creation.

Land Use and Zoning

Zoning is a powerful tool that determines a region’s exposure to hazards and risk. Zoning determines which uses are permitted, or encouraged, to be built in moderate and high-risk areas. It also prevents certain uses, such as critical facilities, from being built in those areas. Zoning is also a determinant of a region’s character and identity.

In the Lower Moodna Creek watershed, a large majority (82%) of land is zoned for residential use. However, in the flood-prone areas, there is a higher ratio of areas zoned for non-residential uses (commercial, industrial) than in areas that are zoned for potential future development. Specifically, within the 10-year storm recurrence floodplain, 30% of the land is zoned for industrial use. This is likely because several facilities, such as wastewater treatment plants and mills, require access to the river and were strategically developed to be within immediate proximity of waterfront access. The Lower Moodna zoning analysis demonstrated a general preference within watershed to limit residential use of flood-prone areas. 

Land Preservation

Preserving land allows for natural stormwater management, as well as limits the exposure of development, and minimizes sources of erosion within the watershed. Preserved land also maintains the hydrologic and ecologic function of the land by allowing rainwater to be absorbed or retained where it falls and thus minimizing run-off. If the land within the floodplain is preserved, it will never be developed, and therefore the risk — a calculation of rate exposure and the value of the potential damage — is eliminated.  Therefore, land preservation, both within the floodplains and in upland areas, is the best way to minimize flood damage.

Conserved riparian areas also generate a range of ecosystem services, in addition to the hazard mitigation benefits they provide. Protected forests, grasslands, and wetlands along rivers and streams can improve water quality, provide habitat to many species, and offer a wide range of recreational opportunities. Given the co-benefits that protected lands provide, there is growing interest in floodplain conservation as a flood damage reduction strategy.

Within the mapped Lower Moodna floodplains, our assessment determined that there appears to be a slight priority for preserving land most at-risk for flooding. This is likely a consequence of prioritizing land that is closest to riparian areas and preserving wetland areas, which are the most likely to experience flooding. Within the floodplains for the 10-year storm, approximately 22.7% is preserved. For the 100-year storm, approximately 21.2% of the land is preserved. Within the 500-year storm, this number drops slightly to 20.3%. These numbers are so close in part because the difference between the 10-year, 100-year, and 500-year floodplains are small in many areas of the watershed.

Hydrology and Hydraulics

Hydrology is the scientific study of the waters of the earth, with a particular focus on how rainfall and evaporation affect the flow of water in streams and storm drains. Hydraulics is the engineering analysis of the flow of water in channels, pipelines, and other hydraulic structures. Hydrology and hydraulics analyses are a key part of flood management.

As part of this flood assessment, Princeton Hydro created a series of hydrologic and hydraulic (H&H) models to assess the extent of potential flooding from the 10-year, 100-year, and 500-year storm recurrence intervals within the Lower Moodna. The modeling, which included flows for these storm events under existing conditions and future conditions based on predicted increases in precipitation and population growth, makes it easier to assess what new areas are most impacted in the future.

These are just a few of the assessments we conducted to analyze the ways in which flooding within the watershed may be affected by changes in land use, precipitation, and mitigation efforts. The flood models we developed informed our recommendations and proposed flood mitigation solutions for reducing and mitigating existing and anticipated flood risk.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this blog series in which we will explore flood risk-reduction strategies that include both traditional engineering and natural systems solutions. For more information about Princeton Hydro’s flood management services, go here: http://bit.ly/PHfloodplain.