Riparian Relief: Mitigating Suburban Inundation by Incorporating Geoscience into New Jersey’s Riparian Land Use Policies

Riparian Relief: Mitigating Suburban Inundation by Incorporating Geoscience into New Jersey’s Riparian Land Use Policies

Written by: Matthew Knoblauch

New Jersey can be defined in many ways depending on the data one measures, but the sum of these definitions is a troubling one. Geologically, the peninsula is made up of four provinces, each varying in elevation, sedimentary makeup,[1] and, consequently, hydrologic drainage.[2] Demographically, it is the most populated state[3] and, geographically, has the “highest percentage of its land surface area in developed land” of any state.[4] Combining these data sets demonstrates that New Jersey is approaching an ominous future. With mounting evidence indicating an increased incidence of severe storms,[5] combined with suburban and exurban expansion into wetlands, forests, and farmland,[6] lawmakers must decide how to zone land adjacent to the numerous water bodies that meander through the state. Exurban communities are typically farther from cities than suburban communities and are generally more affluent.[7] Progressive zoning can insulate built environments from inundation, but the cessation of further human development, at least in tangentially vulnerable areas, is optimal.[8]

Geoscientists have produced digital maps of New Jersey’s land use/land cover “utilizing multi-date digital orthophotographic imagery.”[9] Orthophographic imagery is a photographic map with a uniform scale for precise measurements.[10] The current orthophotographic data tends to “show the steady growth of urban land use” while also showing “decline in the areas of agriculture, forest, and wetlands.”[11] The decline in wetlands is particularly distressing, because wetlands act as sponges to absorb excess water during periods of increased precipitation.[12] Lawmakers can use data, such as geographic information systems, to determine what areas are subject to flooding or would make other areas subject to flooding if they are altered. The government already does this by creating National Flood Insurance Program flood maps,[13] but these have occasionally underestimated the frequency that a given area may flood, and somemunicipalities have attempted to be even more progressive in their zoning policies.[14]

When unimproved lands are developed, they displace areas that absorb floods.[15] But floods do not discriminate based on land use, and this water will inevitably inundate either the altered land or another section along the river’s path.[16] Lawmakers can look to digitized land-use-data and computer-modeling programs predicting future precipitation to inform zoning decisions and avoid inland flooding.

While some who have homes in vulnerable areas can receive buyouts from government agencies,[17] many are left without a remedy. Lawmakers should be progressive, not reactive, and address this problem before it happens. Further development endangers the infrastructure New Jersey currently has and should be restricted, when necessary, after consideration of available precipitation, land use, and other climate data.

[1] David P. Harper, Roadside Geology of New Jersey 8 (2013).

[2] See Robert W. Christopherson, Geosystems: An Introduction to Physical Geography 236-37 (8th ed. 2012).

[3] U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, (2012), available at statab/2012/tables/12s0014.pdf.

[4] Richard Lathrop & John Hasse, Tracking New Jersey’s Changing Landscape in New Jersey’s Environments: Past, Present, and Future 111 (Neil M. Maher ed., 2006).

[5] Chrisopherson, supra note 2, at 216-27.

[6] Lathrop & Hasse, supra note 4, at 115-23.

[7] Exurb Definition, MERRIAM-WEBSTER, (last visited Sept. 26, 2014).

[8] Kousky et al., The Role of Land Use in Adaptation to Increased Precipitation and Flooding: A Case Study IN Wisconsin’s Lower Fox River Basin iii-iv (2011).

[9] Lathrop & Hasse, supra note 4, at 113.

[10]  Digital Orthophotos, United States Geological Survey, (last visited Aug. 27, 2014).

[11] Lathrop & Hasse, supra note 4, at 115.

[12] Id.

[13] Flood Map Service Center, FEMA, (last visited Oct. 6, 2014).

[14] Debbie M. Chizewer & Dan Tarlock, New Challenges for Urban Areas Facing Flood Risks, 40 Fordham L.J. 1739, 1782-84 (2013) (describing how a city attempted to change its zoning ordinance to prohibit any new construction in a certain river’s 500-year floodplain, which is an area that will be flooded once every 500 years, after its previous construction prohibition in 100-year floodplains lead to massive flooding in 2008).

[15] Kousky et al., supra note 7, at iii.

[16] Christine A. Klein, The New Nuisance: An Antidote to Wetland Loss, Sprawl, and Global Warming, 48 B.C. L. Rev. 1155, 1200-01 (2007) (explaining a function of wetlands as water absorbers, and that removal of those wetlands eliminated a region’s ability to deal with flooding); C.P. Konrad, Effects of Urban Development on Floods, U.S. Geological Survey, http:// (last modified Feb. 18, 2014).

[17] Blue Acres Floodplain Acquisition, N.J. Dep’t of Environmental Protection, blue_flood_ac.html (last visited Aug. 28, 2014).

Author: Matthew Knoblauch

Matthew Knoblauch is an Associate Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal. Matthew graduated with an undergraduate degree in history from Rutgers University - New Brunswick and a Master's degree in social studies education from the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. In graduate school, Matthew's research focused dually on environmental history and the history of law enforcement, culminating in the history of a police department and a proposed curriculum for a high school interdisciplinary course on environmental history and natural science. Matthew is a Marsha Wenk Public Interest Law Fellow and co-President of the Environmental Law Society. He spent his 1L summer interning in the Environmental Enforcement and Homeland Security Section of the New Jersey Attorney General's Office. Outside of law school, Matthew works part time as an EMT and is a volunteer firefighter; he also greatly enjoys hiking, camping, and kayaking, particularly in the Lake George region.