Bad water management leads to opposite and equally devastating problems: flooding and drought, says Jim Waltman, executive director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association. And turning on the news — which more often than not will have a story about drying-up lakes in California, or homes being swept away in Texas — should provide incentive to listen to what he and others like him have been saying for years, and take steps to do something about it.
“Everywhere you look, this is going to be front page news for the foreseeable future in our lifetimes, and probably in those of our children and grandchildren,” he says.
Waltman, who just celebrated the opening of his organization’s new headquarters (U.S. 1, April 29) will speak at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, June 17, from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. at the Nassau Club. $25, $40 for nonmembers. Visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
Waltman has led the venerable Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association since 2005. The nonprofit traces its roots back to 1949, and claims to be the first environmental group organized in the state. Its past victories include stopping the construction of I-95 through Hopewell Township. (Ever wondered why I-95 North turns around and becomes I-295 South at Route 1? Thank the environmental activists of the 1960s for that!)
Waltman grew up in Princeton, graduating from Princeton University in 1986 with a degree in biology. His father worked for U.S. Gypsum company. Waltman earned a master’s degree at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and interned at the National Wildlife Federation in Washington. He stayed there for 15 years before moving to Princeton, where he lives with his wife, Alicia, and two children.
Waltman warns that New Jersey’s land development policies put the state at risk for both flooding and drought conditions in the future. To repeat a lesson from elementary school, water goes through a “water cycle” in which rainwater falls, some of it evaporating, some running off into streams, and some going into the earth into underground natural reservoirs called aquifers. Manmade structures like parking lots and roads cause more water to run off into waterways. During storms, this can cause flooding. On the other hand, in times of less rainfall, more impermeable ground cover leads to less water filtering into the aquifers, and worse drought conditions.
Says Waltman: “The same impervious surfaces we’re putting down are covering up or blocking water from percolating down and recharging our aquifers. It’s possible to be flooding and drying out your aquifers at the same time. There are strategies we need to adopt to address those problems.”
Waltman says those strategies can be implemented by individual homeowners as well as businesses and entire towns. He admits that good water management may be a tougher sell to some than energy conservation because there is little monetary gain from it, given the cheapness of water in New Jersey. However, he says, many have taken notice of the need for good stormwater policy.
“Hightstown asked us if we could help them to re-do their stormwater protection ordinance,” Waltman says. “They wanted to do a better job handling stormwater runoff, even knowing that the beneficiaries of it were more likely to be the communities downstream of Hightstown.” The methods of stormwater management range from simple to extreme:
Rain barrels. Perhaps the simplest form of stormwater control, rain barrels go on the ends of gutters, stopping rainwater from a roof from going into the public drain. Homeowners can later use the water collected to water their lawns, saving a few dollars on their water bill. “Holding that water when it’s raining and releasing it when it’s not, you’re going to have an incremental impact on flooding problems,” Waltman says.
The Watershed Association uses a cistern (a larger version of a rain barrel) in its new headquarters. The water is not suitable for drinking but it can be used to flush toilets.
Rain Gardens. A slightly more ambitious homeowner can build a rain garden, Waltman says. A rain garden is a depression on the property, dug out so rainwater will naturally collect there. The garden is made up of plants that do well in both wet and dry conditions (a list can be found at www.thewatershed.org). “This is something just about everybody can do,” Waltman says. The rain garden helps hold the water after a storm and allow it to trickle into the ground, recharging the aquifer.
Roof gardens. Much more expensive and elaborate is a roof garden. Instead of shingles on a roof, there is an entire garden. “This is kind of advanced degree stuff,” Waltman says. For one thing, the roof has to be able to support the weight of the topsoil. The roof garden allows plants to engage in evaporo-transpiration, which releases water through leaves back into the atmosphere. This process also cools buildings, which leads to lower air conditioning bills in the summer.
Waltman plans to wage many policy battles in the coming years. The Watershed Association is aligned against a series of natural gas pipelines planned for the central part of the state. It is also promoting state policies that prohibit building on floodplains, and the Watershed has applauded government buyouts of flood-prone properties. Waltman would like the state to have stronger policies against building near streams.
In the meantime, he sees the business community as a potential source for improvement. Old structures were built without stormwater management in mind, but a redevelopment could include modern systems, including cisterns and the like. “I’m an optimist on this front,” Waltman says.
Waltman believes business has a key role to play in good water management. “We really have to take multi-part strategy to both address the flooding problems and to prepare ourselves for what is probably going to become a bigger and bigger problem over time,” he says.