Op-Ed: ‘I did what I could to prevent erosion on our family’s land, but I worry it is not enough’
As Hurricane Ida made its way from Louisiana to New Jersey, it took lives, demolished homes, and flooded shops by the Delaware River, garnering national attention and visits by a governor and the president. But the hidden story of the damage to our infrastructure, which will take years to fix, is much more pernicious.
I live along the Musconetcong River on a small third-generation farm at the bottom of a valley. This National Wild and Scenic River rolls through villages, under old stone-arch and iron-truss bridges, and around thousands of acres of farms, forest, and public lands. During Ida, it ran fast and stank of untreated sewage from individual septic systems that had leaked or flooded.
When the county culvert on our rural road backed up, the floodwaters followed the swales around our house and barns but broke through and ran through our septic field, flowing into our pond. Our home is outside the 500-year flood plain, but groundwater ran like a spring in the basement for four days straight. My wife and I spent three days redirecting the water coming across the basement slab to the sump pumps. By Day Four we were able to start plugging leaks. It took us six days to move all our wet belongings out of the basement, but I had to go back to work on Day Four.
I have several trees down that fell because of Ida; there are more ready to fall in the next storm, too. We have 63 dead white ash trees overhanging our barns, dead from the invasive emerald ash borer beetle, which invaded from Asia. The damage caused by this invasive pest makes every storm worse, because trees fall during each storm. Why should the individual homeowner be saddled with this costly byproduct of international trade?
Living in the country is great, until you must deal with managing the countryside. Each storm teaches me how to be more prepared. I now have a generator, keep two cords of firewood in the barn, have three sump pumps, and know the best spot to haul up water in buckets from the river. My firsthand experience of what “resilience” means is survival mode for days, exhaustion, and not enough time. Can I keep this up each year, or every other year for my next 40 years of life? Will my employers always be so forgiving?
Hunterdon County towns received the most rainfall from Ida outside of Louisiana, and the county lost seven bridges with more damaged. How will my small county replace them with only a budget of $95 million?
We need more money to fix septic systems before they wash sewage into the river, to prevent damage before it occurs to homes, and to address the burden of invasive species management — a long ignored issue that makes each disaster worse. Public agencies need more workers to get beyond emergency repairs and reduce maintenance backlogs, like that failing culvert.
‘Out of my hands…’
As a private landowner, I am working with the USDA NRCS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Conservation. We’ve fixed our farm’s erosion issues and I’ve put in 100 trees along the river bank. We even enlisted the neighbors to put trees along their river bank, too. I hope those trees can grow faster than the river bank erodes and that stormwater from upriver doesn’t get worse. That is all out of my hands. I did what I could to prevent erosion on our family’s land, but I worry it is not enough.
At my day job, I work at the Musconetcong Watershed Association, writing and deploying grants to improve the river’s water quality. What more can I give that I have not? To ask more of each individual alone to fix collective problems is not a sustainable response to any problem. We need a coordinated response to fix problems like fecal bacteria leaking into rivers and streams from failing septic systems.
We’ve got to just get the job done. But to do that, we must move beyond the debate of big or small government and the myth of individualism being the right solution for every problem, so that our infrastructure can withstand the next Irenes and Idas. Inaction is hurting rural residents, multigenerational landowners who know the landscape and what needs to be done. The problems of failing infrastructure, climate change and invasive species cannot be shouldered on the backs of private individuals, even with federal cost-sharing assistance.
I don’t want to leave my daughter an inheritance of neglected problems. I want to leave her with a home and farm that are resilient and fortified for what we know lies ahead. We all must work together and figure out a way to kick it into gear not only for our sake, but for the sake of our future generations.