Watershed Planning for Environmental Equity

The LRWP is often asked to identify top environmental issues facing our Central New Jersey watershed communities, and every year we develop a “Top 10” list of concerns. Through 2019 we feature one concern a month on our website and explore that issue (and potential solutions) in more detail. In our March essay we bring attention to the state’s failure to act on a mandate to rank contaminated sites. We also consider how New Jersey’s “Home Rule” decision making perpetuates inequitable restoration in our communities. We suggest watershed planning as a more equitable approach to land use decision-making.

Many poor, brown, and black communities throughout New Jersey are saddled with disproportionate legacy contaminant issues in their water and soil. They face greater flood risk and have fewer opportunities for buyouts from flood risks, and have less access to nature, parks, and outdoor space compared to wealthier communities. With respect to legacy contaminants, even when laws are on the books to clean-up our waters, soils, and sediments, time and again the poorest communities are overlooked, with priority given to wealthier watersheds.

In 2009, New Jersey adopted legislation mandating that the state Department of Environmental Protection rank every contaminated site in order of risk and urgency. This “Remedial Priority System” was to serve as a corrective to market-driven remediation that prioritizes clean-up of the most economically desirable contaminated sites. 10 years later however the agency still has not published this list.

NJDEP’s failure to act on this mandate perpetuates environmental injustices and is in violation of the law. We must hold our state agencies accountable for their failure to advance equitable outcomes. We also must consider how land use decision-making at the municipal level perpetuates environmental inequities at a broader scale.

In New Jersey, decisions about how land in a particular municipality is protected, developed, or restored are made by the municipality’s planning board and zoning board. The decision makers that sit on these local boards weigh needs for community and environmental health against the often competing goals of increasing the tax base and expanding or providing new services for municipal residents and visitors. These boards determine how to protect a town (or certain sections of a town) against siting of undesirable uses like power plants, sewage treatment facilities, landfills and incinerators. And they are often charged with making decisions about how to protect against flooding or other natural disasters. There are few tools for planning and zoning boards to use to ensure that their decisions don’t propagate local inequities. Furthermore, because of New Jersey’s “Home Rule” bias in land use decision-making, municipalities are not required to take into consideration the impact on regional growth patterns, existing or planned land uses in adjacent municipalities, or watershed and larger ecological systems impacts.

Examples of undesired regional impacts of local land use decisions include flood control decisions that displace flood waters to neighboring municipalities, and fragmentation of habitat that compromises regional environmental health. Local impacts are felt in low income communities that are not only not prioritized for environmental clean-ups, but continue to be identified for siting of locally undesirable land uses (LULUs). Recognizing this, in January the New Jersey Senate Environment and Energy Committee advanced Senate Bill 1700, which concerns environmental permitting in burdened communities. The “Environmental Justice” Bill is specific to the siting of polluting facilities (power plants, sewage treatment plants, landfills and similar), and would give individuals in our poorest communities the right to petition NJ Department of Environmental Protection for additional environmental and health impacts assessments and a public hearing on permitting processes.

Is this this the best approach we have to righting these wrongs? While any one of us should be able to bring attention to inequities in land use decision making, should the responsibility of designating a community as “burdened” fall on individuals or even on individual communities?

Perhaps other land management approaches, like regional or watershed based planning, can better serve as bulwark against provincial Home Rule interests. These approaches might also balance land uses consistent with human health, environmental, equity, and other goals.

Watershed planning demands integrated thinking and coordination. And watershed management of large ecosystems is inherently science-driven. Climate change has brought attention to the need for science-based land management. Watershed land management is a science-based approach, and watersheds play an increasingly important role in establishing a context for federal, state, and local policy. As such there is increased opportunity for watershed-level planning to guide land use decision-making in the state. Core objectives in watershed management are directly related to water (flood control, water quality and quantity, etc.). Other important objectives include maintenance of biological diversity, wildlife management, urban metabolism, restoration, general environmental preservation, recreation, economic development, and Environmental Equity.

We welcome your thoughts on how watershed-level planning (or other approaches) might be deployed to prioritize action for restoration, advance Environmental Equity, and improve the integration of science with land use decision-making.

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