U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2375
National Water Summary 1988-89--Floods and Droughts:

Floods and Droughts

     New Jersey is located in the path of precipitation-producing weather systems that move across the State from the west and southwest (fig. 1). These systems commonly produce thunderstorms during the warm season and snow during the cold season. Occasional hurricanes, tropical storms, and "northeasters" approach the State from the southeast and northeast. Although mostly beneficial, these storms can cause severe floods. Widespread flooding generally is caused by well-developed frontal systems and tropical cyclones, whereas local flooding generally is caused by thunderstorms. Droughts in New Jersey are less of a problem than floods. Extended, widespread droughts are infrequent; however, short-term local droughts can be severe.

     The great flood of October 1903 was one of the more disastrous in the recorded history of New Jersey. Rainfall totals were more than 11 inches over an area of 800 mi2 (square miles) during the 4-day storm. Many dams, bridges, railroads, industries, and residences were severely damaged or destroyed. On the Passaic River, the magnitude of the 1903 flood (Vermeule, 1903) exceeded that of all subsequent floods.

     Flood damage to New Jersey homes, businesses, and farmlands averages $18 million annually (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, 1985). Occasionally, human lives are lost. Flood-control measures such as channelization and the construction of dams, retarding basins, and levees have been used in some areas to alleviate the problem.

     The drought of 1961-66 was the most severe in New Jersey's history. Rainfall totals for 1965 were the smallest since statewide records began in 1883. Local or widespread droughts have recurred about every 10 years with an apparently random variation in duration and severity. In contrast to the effects of floods, the effects of drought are more gradual and less violent.

     Floods and droughts can affect the quality of surface water. During floods, large quantities of pollutants are washed into streams, but because of the large volume and velocity of the water, the pollutants are diluted and move quickly downstream. During droughts, however, streamflows may not be sufficient to dilute effluents from industries and sewage-treatment plants.

     Flood-plain management in New Jersey is administered by State and local governments, with technical and financial assistance from State and Federal agencies. Flood-warning mechanisms are coordinated by the National Weather Service and now include rainfall and stream-stage telemetry, which includes telephone, radio, and satellite transmission of data. Drought management, in terms of water supply, is addressed in a drought-emergency plan prepared jointly by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the State Police, Office of Emergency Management.

Figure 1. Principal sources and patterns of delivery of moisture into New Jersey. Size of arrow implies relative contribution of moisturefromsourceshown. (Source: DatafrornDouglasR.CIarkand Andrea Lage, Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.)


     New Jersey's climate is extremely variable, even though weather conditions are somewhat moderated by the State's proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. The moderation of climate is only partial because the prevailing winds are from westerly quadrants-west or northwest in winter and southwest in summer. The general climatic type is modified continental.

     The principal sources of moisture for the State are the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico (fig. 1). In addition to the oceans, important moisture sources include local and upwind land surfaces, as well as lakes and reservoirs, from which moisture evaporates into the atmosphere. Typically, as a moisture-laden ocean airmass moves inland, it is modified to include some water that has been recycled one or more times through the land-vegetation-air interface.

     The major factors that control climate in New Jersey vary seasonally. During winter, an intensified semipermanent anticyclone or high-pressure system commonly is located over central Canada and the north-central United States. This system functions as a major source of cold air from which frequent surges of cold airmasses move southward over the State and often produce temperatures of about 0 °F (degrees Fahrenheit). Extreme low temperatures have been about -30 °F. Such outbreaks of cold weather are preceded by the passage of a frontal system, generally in association with a vigorous cyclonic system that can cause large quantities of snow or rain.

     Winter and early spring frontal storms generally cause flooding that is more widespread than in summer. These storms are characterized by widespread steady rainfall of moderate intensity. Flooding sometimes is intensified by frozen, snow-covered ground. The rain melts snow from previous storms, thereby increasing the total runoff potential, and the frozen ground functions as an impervious surface, increasing overland runoff into streams by decreasing infiltration.

     In summer, the main system that affects the weather of New Jersey is the Bermuda High. This semipermanent high-pressure cell generally is located over an area extending from the Sargasso Sea region of the North Atlantic Ocean to the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Because of the clockwise movement of winds around this system, warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico is brought to much of the eastern one-third of the United States. The result is hot and muggy summer days with temperatures that occasionally reach 100 °F in the interior sections of the State. The highest temperature on record in New Jersey is 107 °F. Instability in the north-moving flow of air (fig. 1) and the passage of frontal systems can yield thundershowers that provide abundant moisture to the region. Rain from summer thunderstorms ofcloudburst intensity falling on relatively small (less than 100 mi2) drainage areas can cause locally severe floods. Flooding on streams that drain larger areas generally results from more widespread rainfall.

     The climate changes over the 160 miles between the extreme southern and the northwestern parts of the State. Most of southern New Jersey is surrounded by water and is unaffected by the frequent storms that cross the Great Lakes region and move through the St. Lawrence River valley. These storms have the greatest effect on the northern part of the State. The differences in climate between the high-altitude northern uplands (800 to 1,800 feet) and the low-altitude maritime southern lowlands (0 to 200 feet) are greatest in winter.

     Coastal storms of tropical and extratropical origin produce the most intense and widespread rains in New Jersey. The centers of these storms generally pass offshore; therefore, the rainfall and winds are most intense near the coast. On several occasions, tropical cyclones have moved inland along the South Atlantic coast of the United States and then moved northward through New Jersey or farther west. Noteworthy storms of this type include Hurricanes Able in 1952, Hazel in 1954, and Connie and Diane in 1955. Some of the worst floods in New Jersey have been caused by hurricanes and tropical storms.

     The part of the annual precipitation in New Jersey that is attributable to storms of tropical origin ranges from 4 percent in the north to 6 percent in the south. However, during the rather dry month of September, more than 30 percent of the precipitation in the southeastern part of the State originates from tropical cyclones. Without this rainfall of tropical origin, September would be the driest month of the year in most of the State. Late-season crops benefit from, and diminishing water supplies often are replenished by, tropical-cyclone rainfall during this time of the year.

     Annual precipitation ranges from about 40 inches along the southeastern coast to 52 inches in the north-central part of the State. Precipitation is nearly evenly distributed throughout the year but peaks slightly in the summer in the interior as a result of thunderstorm activity. Precipitation peaks again in the winter along the shore as a result of coastal storms. Rainfall totals of as much as 8 inches in 24 hours have been recorded.

     Annual snowfall ranges from about 13 inches at Cape May to almost 50 inches in the northern uplands. Snowfalls from a single storm occasionally can be 10 or more inches.

     Tornadoes and hailstorms occur every year in New Jersey, but these events are uncommon and less severe than those in the midwestern United States. Thunderstorms are most frequent between May and September. Thunderstorms generally occur about 35 days each year in the interior and 20-25 days along the coast, where they tend to be inhibited by the cooling and stabilizing effects of the sea breeze.

     The weather in New Jersey is only infrequently extreme, and precipitation generally is plentiful and reliable. The climate enables agriculture to thrive and provides an excellent setting for residential, industrial, commercial, and resort activities.


     Documentation of floods in New Jersey is extensive and began in the last century. The State Geologist described flooding in his annual reports for 1896, 1903, and other years (Vermeule, 1897, 1903). The U.S. Geological Survey published its first two flood reports nationally on the Passaic River floods of 1902 and 1903 (Hollister and Leighton, 1903; Leighton, 1904). In 1921, acomprehensive State-Federal program of streamflow measurement was initiated. From 1936 to 1984, the U.S. Geological Survey has published reports on several floods that have affected New Jersey.

     The most significant floods and droughts in New Jersey are listed chronologically in table 1; rivers and cities are shown in figure 2. Many floods and droughts in New Jersey were less widespread or less severe than those discussed in this report. Some of these events, however, were significant in terms of magnitude of peak discharge, loss of life, or property damage (table 1).

     Data from as many as 125 streamflow-gaging stations were used to determine the areal extent and severity of major floods and droughts. Annual peak-discharge data for six selected gaging stations, the location of each station, and the drainage-area boundaries are shown in figure 3. The gaging stations were selected because they have long periods of continuous record, are currently in operation, and are representative of hydrologic conditions in the major geographic and physiographic areas of the State. All gaging stations are located on moderately regulated or unregulated streams. Streamflow data are collected, stored, and reported by water year (a water year is the 12-month period from October 1 through September 30 and is identified by the calendar year in which it ends).

Figure 2. Selected geographic features, New Jersey.


     The five major floods discussed in this section are among the most severe in New Jersey's history in terms of magnitude, areal extent, loss of life, and property damage. Of the five floods, four (1903, 1940, 1955, 1971) were caused by summer storms, and one (1984) was caused by a spring storm.

     The flood of October 9-11, 1903 (water year 1904), was the flood of record on the main stems of the Passaic (fig. 3, site 1) and Pompton Rivers. The storm that caused the flood followed 3 months of excessive rainfall; the rainfall had raised ground-water levels and saturated the soil. The storm, which was the remmants of a tropical storm, produced about l5 inches of rainfall at Paterson--11.4 inches in 1 day. Average total storm rainfall over the Passaic River basin was 11.4 inches. This storm is described in detail by Leighton (1904) and Vermeule (1903).

     In New Jersey, the 1903 storm resulted in the most severe flooding since colonial times. Nearly all bridges and dams on the Ramapo River were destroyed. Damage totaled about $7 million (Leighton, 1904, p. 28). If a flood of equal magnitude were to recur under present conditions of development, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that it would inundate 18,000 residential structures and 4,500 nonresidential structures and would cause damage of $1.5 billion (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, 1985, p. 11-15).

     The flood of September 1-3, 1940, was caused by an intense storm that produced the greatest storm total rainfall recorded in the State. At Ewan, in southwestern New Jersey, the U.S. Weather Bureau (now National Weather Service) reported 24 inches of rain in 9 hours. The rain was caused by a combination of intense thunder-storm activity and a tropical storm centered 150 miles east of the New Jersey coast (Stankowski, 1972, p. 30). Most of the dams and bridges in southeastern New Jersey were destroyed or severely damaged. The Maurice River at Norma (fig. 3, site 4) had a peak discharge almost 5 times the next highest peak ever recorded at the gaging station.

     On August 13-20, 1955, intense rainfall from two downgraded hurricanes caused flooding. Tropical Storm Connie passed to the west of New Jersey on August 13 and produced an average of 7 inches of rain on the Delaware River basin north of Trenton. This rainfall caused moderate flooding and saturated the soil. On August 19, the center of Tropical Storm Diane passed over central New Jersey in a northeasterly direction, less than 1 week after Tropical Storm Connie (Ludlum, 1983). Rainfall totals of 7-8 inches were reported. This intense rain on wet ground caused record flooding of the Delaware River and many of its tributaries as well as in the upper reaches of the Raritan River. Flood discharge of the Delaware River at Trenton (fig. 3, site 6) was the peak discharge of record and the largest since at least 1692. This flood also produced the peak discharge of record on Flat Brook near Flatbrookville (fig. 3, site 5). Damage from the flooding in New Jersey was $27.5 million (Solomon Summer, National Weather Service, written commun., 1988).

     The flood of August 27-29, 1971, was caused by a frontal storm that was followed closely by the remnants of Tropical Storm Doria. Total rainfall quantities for the 32 hours of the storm ranged from about 3 to 11 inches across New Jersey. Flash flooding was widespread, especially on small streams and in urban areas. Three lives were lost. Damage from the flooding has been reported at $100 million (Solomon Summer, National Weather Service, written commun., 1988). Flooding was particularly severe in the central Delaware and Raritan River basins. The Passaic and Delaware Rivers did not reach record flood levels because the intense rainfall occurred over only a part of each basin.

     The April 5-7, 1984, flood resulted from frontal-storm rainfall of 2-8 inches in northeastern New Jersey. The area had received greater than normal precipitation during the previous 6 months. As a result, water-supply reservoirs, which were full at the beginning of the storm, provided minimal flow attenuation. Some snow was still on the ground, and in some areas the ground was still frozen. These conditions increased the rate of runoff; large residential areas were inundated with 3-5 feet of water. This flood produced the peak discharge of record on the Ramapo River near Mahwah (fig. 3, site 1). Three lives were lost in the flood, and 6,000 people were evacuated. Damage was $109 million (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, 1985, p. 11-7).

Table 1.   Chronology of major and other memorable floods and droughts in New Hampshire, 1740-1988
[Recurrence interval: The average interval of time within which streamflow will be greater than a particular value for floods or less than a particular value for droughts. Symbol: >, greater than. Sources: Recurrence intervals calculated from U.S. Geological Survey data; other information from U.S. Geological Survey, State and local reports, and newspapers]
Flood or
Date Area affected
(fig. 2)
Flood Feb. 6-8, 1896 Raritan River
20 to >100
One of most severe floods of 19th Century.
Flood Mar. 1-2, 1902 Passaic and Delaware Rivers
20 to >100
Worst winter flood in Passaic River basin.
Flood Oct. 9-11, 1903 Passaic, Pompton, Ramapo, and Delaware River.
50 to >100
Most severe since 1810 in Passaic River basin.
Drought 1929-32 Statewide
20 to 60
Worst on record in southern New Jersey.
Flood Mar. 11-19, 1936 Passaic and Delaware Rivers.
10 to >100
Warm rain on frozen snow-covered ground produced most severe winter flood since 1902.
Flood Sept. 21-23, 1938 Raritan and Delaware Rivers and northern Atlantic coastal basins.
10 to >100
Caused by hurricane. Maximum total rainfall was 7 inches in Passaic River basin.
Flood Sept. 1-3, 1940 Southeastern New Jersey
15 to >100
Maximum rainfall of 24 inches in 9 hours set a record for New Jersey.
Flood July 9-23, 1945 Passaic and upper Delaware Rivers.
8 to 50
Intense showers followed 6-day rainfall. In Passaic River basin, mean rainfall was 8.5 inches.
Drought 1949-50 Hackensack and Passaic Rivers
5 to 25
Driest June on record throughout State.
Drought 1953-55 Statewide 5 to 25
Moderate, affected mainly agriculture.
Flood Aug. 13-20, 1955 Northern New Jersey
5 to >100
Caused by Tropical Storms Connie and Diane. Most severe in history on Delaware River. Damage, $27.5 million.
Drought 1961-66 Statewide
25 to >50
Longest and most severe in New Jersey history. Driest year was 1965.
Flood Mar. 6, 1962 Coastal areas
Caused by "northeaster;" Atlantic City most damaged. Lives lost, 22; damage, $123 million.
Flood Aug. 27-29, 1971 Raritan, Passaic, and central Delaware Rivers.
5 to >100
Caused by Tropical Storm Doria. Lives lost, 3; damage, $100 million.
Flood Aug. 2, 1973 Eastern Raritan and Rahway Rivers.
20 to >100
Seven inches of rain in 5 hours. Lives lost, 6; damage, $67 million.
Flood July 13-21, 1975 Southern Raritan and central Delaware Rivers.
10 to >100
Caused by severe thunderstorms in Trenton and Princeton areas. Lives lost, 1; damage, $12 million.
Flood Nov. 8-10, 1977 Passaic River and northern Atlantic coastal areas.
4 to 100
Known as "Election Day flood." Maximum rainfall greater than 9 inches. Damage, $96 million.
Drought 1980-81 Statewide
10 to 25
Mandatory water rationing ordered by Governor.
Flood Apr. 5-7, 1984 Passaic River
4 to 80
Intense rain on saturated snow-covered ground; water-supply reservoirs at capacity. Lives lost, 3; damage, $109 million.
Drought 1984-85 Statewide
4 to 20
Mandatory water rationing ordered by Governor.

Figure 3. Areal extent of major floods with a recurrence interval of 25 years or more in New Jersey, and annual peak discharge for selected sites, water years 1882-1988. (Source: Data from U.S. Geological Survey files.)


     Drought has numerous definitions, but the most easily understood is "an extended period of dry weather." Droughts differ in their extent, duration, and severity; these differences make quantitative analysis and comparison between droughts difficult. A drought may affect many States and last 5 or more years, as happened in the 1960's. However, a drought affecting one or two counties and lasting a short time may be devastating locally but go unnoticed outside of the affected area. Also, the time of year may determine the significance of a drought. A drought during the winter may have much less effect than one during the growing season.

     A drought analysis for New Jersey is summarized in figure 4. Records of accumulated departures from monthly mean streamflow from 22 gaging stations were analyzed to determine the extent and severity of five major droughts. The six graphs show the annual departure from average discharge for the six representative gaging stations indicated on the location map. Positive bars indicate periods of greater than normal streamflow; large negative bars indicate drought. Five major droughts are evident: 1929-32, 1949-50, 1953-55, 1961-66, and 1980-81. A moderate drought during 1984-85 affected most of the State but was short and not as severe as the five earlier droughts.

     The drought of May 1929-October 1932 was the second most severe drought in New Jersey history. This drought was regional in scale and affected most States in the Northeast. Streamflow deficits at gaging stations where data were analyzed had recurrence intervals greater than 25 years (fig. 4). In the Delaware River, the decreased volume of freshwater flow enabled saline water to move upriver from the Delaware Bay to the Camden area and endanger freshwater supplies

     The February 1949-October 1950 drought was much less widespread than the 1929-32 drought. This drought was most severe in northeastern New Jersey, where it had a recurrence interval greater than 10 years (fig. 4). The driest June on record at most gaging stations throughout New Jersey was in 1949. The average statewide precipitation for the month was 0.2 inch, which was 3.6 inches less than normal.

     The statewide drought of May 1953-July 1955 had recurrence intervals of about 15 years in northern and southern New Jersey and 5-25 years in the south-central part of the State (fig. 4). Because of the timing of the drought, which began in May, crop yields were decreased.

     The drought of June 1961-August 1966 was the longest and most severe of the five droughts. Streamflow deficits were greatest in northern New Jersey; there, the recurrence interval of the drought exceeded 50 years. In the rest of the State, the recurrence interval ranged from 25 to 50 years. Hardison (1968, p. 89-90) estimated the recurrence interval of the streamflow deficit for the main-stem Delaware River to be much greater than 100 years. Water conservation was widely practiced, and a state of emergency was declared by the Governor on June 12, 1965, for most of northeastern New Jersey. In addition, the Delaware River Basin Commission, on July 12, 1965, declared a drought emergency and decreased diversions from the Delaware River basin by New York City and New Jersey. In August 1965, the President declared the Delaware River basin to be a Federal drought-disaster area.

     The drought of June 1980-April 1981 was nearly statewide and had recurrence intervals that ranged from 10 to 25 years except in a few isolated areas (fig. 4). A ban on nonessential water use for 372 municipalities was ordered by the Governor in January 1981 (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, 1983). Boonton Reservoir, completed in 1904, had record-low water levels at the end of January 1981.

PHOTO: Wanaque Reservoir during the drought of 1980-81. This water-supply reservoir was down to 50 percent of capacity at the time. (Photograph supplied by Dean Noll, North Jersey District Water Supply Commission.)

     The drought of July 1984-August 1985 had a recurrence interval that ranged from 10 to 20 years in the northern and east-central parts of the State and from 4 to 9 years in the north-central and southwestern parts. On January 23, 1985, the Delaware River Basin Commission declared the basin to be in a drought-warning condition. On April 17, 1985, the Governor declared a state of emergency for 93 municipalities in northeastern New Jersey (New Jersey Departments of Environmental Protection and Law and Public Safety, 1986).

Figure 4. Areal extent of major droughts with a recurrence interval of 10 years or more in New Jersey, and annual departure from average stream discharge for selected sites, water years 1903-88. (Source: Data from U.S. Geological Survey files.)

     All six streamflow-departure graphs (fig. 4) indicate that droughts after 1929 have had an apparently random variation in severity and duration. Streamflow had its greatest negative values near the end of the 1961-66 drought. Since then. New Jersey has had predominantly greater than average streamflow.


     Severe floods and droughts are relatively infrequent in New Jersey. Historically, attention is directed to the problems of floods or droughts immediately following amajor event. Preventive measures are discussed, and mechanisms to lessen the disastrous effects of future floods and droughts may be implemented depending on the severity of the event; the financial condition and motivation of the Federal, State, and local agencies involved; and the concerns of the general public.

     Flood-Plain Management.--Regulation of flood plains in New Jersey is a function of State and local governments. The State has regulated flood plains since enactment of the Stream Encroachment Act of 1929. The Flood Hazard Control Act of 1980 strengthened the State's regulatory authority within the designated flood plain. New Jersey has 567 communities, 542 of which have identified flood-hazard areas. Almost 96 percent of these communities have enacted local flood-plain management regulations to permit participation in the National Flood Insurance Program maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

     The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is the primary agency for flood-plain regulation in the State. The Department's role is that of regulator and technical advisor; it provides engineering data and specialized planning information to local governments and other State agencies and coordinates various water-resources activities in New Jersey with appropriate Federal agencies. This Department also prepares model flood-plain-management ordinances, distributes flood maps and flood-altitude data, provides flood-preparedness and flood-recovery assistance, coordinates the National Flood Insurance Program in the State, and regulates flood-plain development through the issuance or denial of Stream Encroachment Permits for construction on flood plains.

     Flood-Warning Systems.--Flood-warning activities started in New Jersey in 1902 with a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Weather Bureau and the U.S. Geological Survey. This early flood-warning system relied on observers to monitor stream-stage and rain gages and to report the information to the U.S. Weather Bureau by telegraph. Beginning about 1959, telephone telemetry was installed at about 12 streamflow-gaging stations within the State. The National Weather Service presently relays flood stage and weather information pertinent to floods by radio, television, and satellite.

     In the spring of 1988, a flood-warning system was installed in the Passaic River basin. This system was funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The system incorporates 31 radio-reporting rain gages, 20 satellite- and telephone-reporting stream-stage gages, and aradio and private-satellite communications network to relay data between four counties, two State offices, and five Federal offices. A base-station computer that can provide rainfall and flood data needed on a realtime basis during a flood is located at each of these offices. Other areas of the State, such as Somerset County in north-central New Jersey, will be joining this system.

     Water-Use Management During Droughts.--Water-supply needs during droughts are addressed by the New Jersey Drought Emergency Plan (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, 1981). A drought coordinator is appointed by the Govemor. The coordinator is responsible for adopting rules, imposing restrictions, rationing water, allocating supplies, and ordering temporary closures of nonresidential water-use facilities. Drought conditions are identified on the basis of precipitation deficiencies, reservoir levels in the major water-supply reservoirs, and, in some areas, ground-water levels.

     Interstate drought-plan operations within the Delaware River basin have been approved by New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware and are implemented by the Delaware River Basin Commission. The Commission may limit diversions from the basin by New York City and New Jersey, decrease the flow requirements for the Delaware River at Montague, N.J., and impose water-use restrictions on the basis of storage in the reservoirs in the upper Delaware River basin in New York.


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Prepared by W.R. Bauersfeld and R.D. Schopp, U.S. Geological Survey, and M.D. Shulman, Rutgers University

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: District Chief, U.S. Geological Survey, Mountain View Office Park, 810 Bear Tavern Road, Suite 206, West Trenton, NJ 08628

U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2375, p. 401-408