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Advisory Council Thirsty for Look at Draft Water-Supply Master Plan

Council hasn’t seen plan for two years, needs to evaluate revisions, effect of population growth on available water supply

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An advisory council that makes recommendations to state officials on water-supply issues is calling on the Department of Environmental Protection to give it the latest draft of a new water-supply master plan, a document it has not seen in about two years.

In a letter to DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, the New Jersey Water Supply Advisory Council noted that its membership has changed since the last time it saw a draft of the plan and “understands that it includes changes from the Governor’s and Commissioner’s offices.’’

The plan has not been revised in nearly two decades, a failure that has drawn criticism from conservationists and others worried that New Jersey’s economic growth could be constrained by uncertainty about water.

Those concerns will be the focus of a hearing before the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee tomorrow in a hearing in Trenton for the need for DEP to update the water supply plan.

In its letter to Martin, the advisory council told the commissioner, “We cannot guarantee our support of the current draft because we have not yet had the opportunity to review edits.’’

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, noted the letter from the council was dated last Friday and he was not sure if the commissioner had seen it yet. Hanja was not certain of the timetable when the plan would be released.

The plan could impose new costs on homeowners and businesses -- a factor some suggest is behind the failure of the Christie administration to act on it. The projected costs of upgrading the state’s aging drinking-water infrastructure is expected to be as much as $8 billion, according to a study by a blue-ribbon panel dubbed “Facing Our Future.’’

The last water supply master plan, completed in 1996, concluded that most of the state has viable groundwater and surface supplies, except if a long drought occurs. “However, plentiful precipitation does not guarantee that droughts will not cause major water supply disruptions or that groundwater aquifers will be depleted,” the plan said.

Some conservationists worry that shortages of potable drinking water will lead to more pressure to withdraw water from vast underground supplies beneath the New Jersey Pinelands.

Others were critical of the state’s failure to adopt a new plan that is almost two decades old.

“It’s part of the administration’s attack on science and planning,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “If you don’t have a water supply master plan, it will allow development in areas where there is not enough water.’’

The issue of aquifers is a particularly concern in South Jersey, where withdrawal of groundwater has caused saltwater intrusion that affects drinking-water supplies for residents.

The depletion of groundwater is also a concern because in Cumberland County, where stream flows are being impacted, a problem that affects ecological habitats, many of which are home to endangered species.

The failure to adopt a new plan for the water supply also raises questions over how new census data relating to growth in New Jersey relates to assumptions in the prior document based on 1990 data.

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