Construction Restores Flood-Ravaged NJ Roads

Tue July 27, 2004 - Northeast Edition
James Van Horn

A storm that dumped up to 13 in. of rain in southern New Jersey in mid-July wreaked havoc in several towns, left many homeless, and washed out numerous bridges and roads.

While repair or replacement of flood-damaged homes is just starting, transportation is almost back to normal, due to to prompt construction efforts. The rains did, however, spotlight a major problem and potential construction opportunity: the integrity of hundreds of small dams, many privately owned, throughout the state.

The deluge, the result of a stalled front, did the most damage in Burlington County as it swelled the Rancocas Creek and its tributaries to overflowing. Hardest hit were Lumberton, Medford Lakes and Vincentown, where cars floated away and 800 people were evacuated as waters inundated their communities and created scenes resembling flooding in the Midwest.

Because of extensive damage, parts of Lumberton remain closed for security reasons.

New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey said damage is estimated to be at least $50 million. Burlington County was declared a federal disaster area, making loans and other relief available.

Flooded-out residents are beginning cleanup; a number face the prospect of stripping their houses down to the bare frame and rebuilding from there, as floors and walls were irreparably damaged by water.

The rains forced temporary closures of at least 25 roads, including the New Jersey Turnpike; caused sinkholes, and washed sections of road away, in both in Burlington and Camden counties. Heaviest hit was Route 70 in Southampton Township, the main road between Philadelphia and the New Jersey Shore.

Floodwaters wiped out the Friendship Creek bridge, a concrete slab structure built in 1931. However, with the help of a temporary bridge, the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) had traffic on Route 70 running again, although at a reduced speed.

After removing the destroyed structure and laying new riprap on the banks of Friendship Creek, NJDOT and its emergency contractor, IEW Construction Group of Trenton, installed a steel Acrow bridge that had originally been used several years ago as a temporary span for westbound Interstate 80 in Denville, when that road was closed by a fire. The state still had the bridge available, and IEW reprised its role in the I-80 fix, using two hydraulic cranes to set the span in place at an offset to the main roadway so work can begin on a new, permanent bridge. NJDOT expects to have the replacement bridge available by Labor Day. The state estimates the cost of the repairs to be $3 million.

Most other main roads reopened after construction crews filled sinkholes and repaired bridges. Side streets and roads, particularly in Medford Lakes, remained closed for reconstruction.

In Medford Lakes, Giberson Plumbing & Excavating, Shamong, is using a Trojan loader and its fleet of over-the-road dump trucks to clean up and remove muck deposited when the dam holding Upper Aetna Lake breached. Arawak Paving Co. Inc., Hammonton, is repairing streets and roads in the borough. And crews have started installing sheet piling to shore up a flood-destroyed roadway.

The floods had unintended consequences on another construction project, interrupting it. In Vincentown, the NJDOT is replacing two dams and bridges, one bridge/dam over a tributary of Rancocas Creek and the other over a mill race. The $2.5-million project is in the Vincentown Historical District and the job will be designed to blend in with both the historic setting — the town was originally built around a dam and mill race — and an existing bridge further downstream.

The flooding left construction high and not quite dry, so as flood waters began to recede, a wheel loader replaced washed out stone ballast so equipment could be removed.

The storm had the greatest impact on the area’s dams — it breached 13 of them. As a result, New Jersey will probably accelerate the upgrading and replacing of small dams, a process, which has already begun but has received little attention, especially when compared with other infrastructure construction needs — roads, bridges, schools and housing.

There are hundreds of lakes and ponds in New Jersey. Very few, if any, are natural.

That means for every lake or pond there’s at least one dam.

There is a rigid program of inspections, maintenance and repair, to defined standards, for dams owned or operated by governmental bodies, usually dams used for flood control or water supply.

And then there are the other dams. Some of them have their origins in colonial days, when enterprising individuals, unencumbered by DEPs or DOTs, threw dirt, rock, timber or rubble across a stream to create a water head that could drive a mill to grind grain.

Other dams were installed for aesthetic or recreational purposes, or by residential developers seeking a “lake community.” Most are privately owned by individuals or homeowner associations. Ownership of others is as murky as Rancocas Creek following the rains. The state doesn’t even know about some of the smaller ones.

According to Bradley Campbell, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the state also has been inspecting privately owned dams, assessing the risk they pose, and recommending upgrading or repairs where necessary. Last November New Jersey voters approved a $150-million measure, which included funding repairs to dams, either as grants or low-interest loans. (If a dam and the resulting lake are privately owned, with no public access, the state cannot usually grant money for repairs.) To date, according to Campbell, 50 dam owners have applied for funding.

Sources say, however, there may be as many as 196 high hazard dams in New Jersey, at least 50 of which need repair right now. However, the extensive repairs may be beyond the means of private owners or homeowners’ associations; it is estimated it will cost $7.5 million just to replace two of the failed dams in Medford Lakes. Because they carry local roads, however, these dams may be eligible for state or federal funding.

Due to costs like these, New Jersey has been taking the carrot rather than the stick approach, even though most of the dams that failed were being repaired, in need of repair, or the owners hadn’t filed inspection and maintenance reports. While 40 cases have been filed for legal enforcement, none are in court.

Campbell said the state, instead of pursuing legal action, urged the owners to take advantage of the low-interest loans now available. (Campbell added that the rains, the heaviest ever recorded in the area, might have washed out the failed dams anyway, even with prior inspections or maintenance.)

But as a result of the floods, there may be a major dam initiative in New Jersey. The problem isn’t confined to just the Garden State. (See Only a New Jersey Problem? Not By a Dam Site on page 40.) There’s a precedent: Pemberton Township, NJ, took over three aging dams from a homeowners association, upgraded the largest and slated the two smaller ones for repair. All three dams withstood the July rains. Other dams in the township have an ongoing inspection, maintenance and repair program.)

Already, at least one owner of a private dam and lake in southern New Jersey — not in the area recently flooded — has said he’ll open the dam and drain the lake, rather than repair it or risk a flood downstream.

Other dam owners said they plan to upgrade or repair their dams if necessary, even though they probably aren’t eligible for direct grants or federal disaster area funding.

So the issues raised by the July floods are definitely not “water over the dam.”