Millburn Wants to Use the Orange Reservoir to Fight Floods Along the Rahway River

The Orange Reservoir. Credit: Darren Tobia.

Three months after Mario DeMarco opened Basilico in Millburn, his restaurant was destroyed by a flood. His staff, along with a family of five customers, were stranded on the second floor of his building at 324 Millburn Avenue and needed to be craned to safety. Three hurricanes have clobbered his business since opening, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars  in damage.

When he heard last week’s flood warning, he feared for the worst. “Everytime I hear a forecast like that, it’s very stressful,” DeMarco said. “I sound frustrated by this because I’ve experienced this so many times.”

Millburn, which sits in a valley where both branches of the Rahway River pass through its borders, is a vulnerable to severe weather events. Township officials have wracked their brains for ways to control floods and their latest approach is to harness the Orange Reservoir.

The Orange City Council passed a resolution last month that will let Millburn Township study the Orange Reservoir’s potential as a retention basin during storms. The 62-acre lake could hold back thousands of gallons of water from entering the Rahway River, which flows down from the reservoir into Millburn’s business district and has a history of cresting during heavy rainfall.

“This has been a long time in the making,” said Alexander McDonald, Millburn’s business administrator. “But it’s only the first step in the process.”

McDonald said the survey will measure the depth of the reservoir and the topography surrounding it. “That will determine what benefit can be realized downstream,” he said. “Millburn sits at the bottom of the reservation and collects all the water from the mountain — we need to make sure we’re exploring different avenues.”

The plan to use the reservoir — which is located in West Orange, but owned by Orange — has been supported by Rahway River Mayors Council since 2016. The idea is to install pipes that could drain the reservoir before a storm. The Army Corps of Engineers estimated the entire project to cost between $20 million to $80 million, The Item reported. But the Army Corps later rescinded its support for the project, meaning the project will have to rely on other funding sources.

Two years ago, Hurricane Ida devastated downtown Millburn, impacting more than 70 businesses. Steve Grill, executive director of Explore Millburn, which helped distribute $400,000 to flood-torn businesses, remembers the “utter devastation” of that storm.

“I still haven’t wrapped my head around it,” Grillo said. “A handful of business owners couldn’t come back — or didn’t want to come back from the trauma they experienced.”

Today, a walk down Millburn Avenue reveals that the business district has rebounded. The commercial vacancy rate is down to three percent, Grillo said. However, the threat of flooding has curtailed larger developments. “The uncertainty has limited some construction,” Grill said. “People are wary of investing in property until there are some defined metrics about what they can expect from flood mitigation.”

The Orange Reservoir proposal is only one of the ways township officials are exploring to address the issue. Richard Wasserman, a member of the township’s flood mitigation committee who served as deputy mayor the year Ida hit, helped pass legislation in 2021 that formed a nine-member flood mitigation advisory committee.

The committee helped oversee the construction of a $700,000 drainage project in the township’s South Mountain neighborhood, completed this year and funded by the municipal government. These new stormwater drains flush out water — that would normally pool in the backyards and basements of homeowners — into the local sewer. Residents have reported a noticeable difference, according to Sara Sherman, committee member.

Sherman remembers in 2014 when there was a proposal to build a dam in South Mountain Reservation, but it faced considerable opposition. She feels the plan to use the Orange Reservoir could have a different fate, but she is waiting to see the results of the study before the committee can put its support behind it.

Still, she believes the responsibility of preventing floods should also fall on the municipalities further upstream.

“It’s always a matter of where do we start upstream to address it,” said Sherman, whose home has flooded three times since moving to Millburn. “This rain we had the last few days, we were worried here in South Mountain — we live with this.”

Credit: Millburn's Flood Mitigation Advisory Committee.

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