Most days, the Peckman barely qualifies as a river. Not much water or movement. A shallow creek for middle schoolers to splash across after classes get out.
Yet there have been two major floods along the Peckman in the last five years, in 2018 and 2021. And every cluster of dark clouds brings the worry that the small stream between the two hilly ridges that define Verona will once again fail to contain all the stormwater that rushes down into it.
Verona’s Town Council has been looking into what can be done to mitigate flooding along the Peckman, but there are few easy fixes. Unlike the roads in Verona, which belong to either the town or Essex County, most of the Peckman rests in multiple private hands: Property lines on the east and west banks extend halfway into the river. Verona had had the attention of Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ11), who was pushing the Army Corps of Engineers to address flooding along the Passaic River and its tributaries. But earlier this year, Verona was moved into the 10th congressional district, so conversations about federal help have to start over.
What is clear is that doing nothing about the Peckman isn’t an option.
Climate change raises prospect of flooding
Much of New Jersey is now battling a heightened threat of flooding because climate change has increased the frequency and precipitation of storms. Big storms like Hurricane Ida, which caused 29 deaths in New Jersey last August, as well as localized microbursts that seem to pop up out of nowhere. On August 11, 2018, a microburst hit Verona and caused a flood (pictured above) that did nearly $1 million in damage in a matter of minutes. And Verona, like the rest of New Jersey, must find ways to control flooding with an aging infrastructure that wasn’t built to withstand it.
“Climate change is creating a ‘new normal’ such that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is having to race to keep up,” says Councilwoman Cynthia Holland. “We, too, need to keep up.”
Holland made this a significant portion of her campaign platform when she ran for Town Council in 2021, and has since been at the forefront of finding a solution. She invited Rutgers University to study our situation and on May 23, a professor of civil engineering and his students presented their findings to the Town Council and suggested three solutions: reroute stormwater pipes, reinforce the Peckman’s banks to control erosion, and use Verona Lake as an emergency detention basin for stormwater.
The dam at the northern end of Verona Lake has valves that can be opened to let out some of the water in the lake. In 2015, with a hurricane headed our way, Essex County gradually lowered the lake over several days so it could hold more of the anticipated stormwater. (Verona Park and its lake are county property.) Steve Neale, Verona’s director of administration & economic development says that, in recent months, Verona has twice asked the county to drop the water level, which it did. But lowering the lake isn’t a defense against microburst flooding, which happens with little warning.
Seeking engineering advice, grants
Though much of the Peckman is private property, the town often clears it of debris after storms, and the Verona Environmental Commission holds regular cleanups. But Hurricane Ida took away a stretch of embankment near Bloomfield Avenue and other storms have eroded 10 feet of embankments where Franklin Street is split by the stream. Neale notes that the town put in boulders near Bloomfield Avenue, but Verona will need the advice of a professional engineering firm to fix Franklin Street and other damaged areas. “We want to stabilize the banks where they should be, not change the course of the river,” says Neale, who is trying to identify a firm to create a plan for this work and, potentially re-routing some of Verona’s storm sewers away from the center of town. Neale is hopeful that the federal government will fund or reimburse the projects, noting that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reimbursed Verona for almost all of the cost of Hurricane Ida’s damage. Verona recently retained a grant writer to help it win a bigger share of the federal and state money available.
Fixing Verona’s infrastructure so that the Peckman doesn’t flood isn’t going to get done overnight. Verona’s objective is to be prepared for excess stormwater because immunity is, frankly, impossible. “It’s like maintenance of your car,” says Holland. “You’re never going to be finished. It’s an ongoing obligation, and we have to be constantly improving.”
Giovanni Zerbini, MyVeronaNJ.com’s 2022 Capstone intern, contributed to the reporting for this story. Readers can follow all of the town’s plans for the Peckman here.