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Legislators Bemoan 20-Year Delay in Adopting Water-Supply Master Plan

Today’s outdated plan leaves state vulnerable to water shortages, doesn’t accurately account for pollution, and underestimates demand

delaware river (spring)

It has been nearly 20 years since the state updated its water supply master plan, a delay that legislators and conservationists said could jeopardize the ability to deliver safe and adequate drinking water to residents in the future.

In those two decades, population has grown, water use has increased, and potential problems with providing potable water to consumers have multiplied. These include depletion of groundwater supplies, increased pollution, and uncertainty about where the supplies to meet tomorrow’s needs will come from.

In a hearing yesterday before the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee, many said the failure to revise a new plan -- last adopted in 1996 -- leaves the state without the proper tools to adapt to potential droughts and to deal with overreliance on groundwater supplies to meet residential and business needs.

Without such a plan, the panel argued, the state lacks the information to deal with potential water shortages in certain areas, identify needed improvements to its aging water infrastructure, and calculate costs to customers and businesses.

All of the above carry huge costs. Previous studies have projected that the cost of replacing century-old water mains, some made of wood, could run as high as $8 billion. The question is who pays for the upgrades.

“In most cases, it comes down to ratepayers,’’ said Daniel Van Abs, an associate professor at Rutgers University and a former project manager at the state Department of Environmental Protection, which developed the state’s last water supply master plan in 1996.

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin and his staff were invited to speak at the hearing but declined to do so, according to Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Bergen), the chairman of the committee. It is not unusual since Christie administration officials rarely appear before legislative panels, the typical exception being commissioners testifying before budget committees on proposed spending plans for the next fiscal year.

Gordon was clearly frustrated in the failure to adopt a new plan -- a problem most acknowledged was not only the fault of the Christie administration, but also prior Democratic administrations.

“It’s difficult to understand a 20-year delay in adopting the plan,’’ Gordon said at the beginning of the hearing. “What accounts for the 20-year delay?’’ He never got an answer to that question, in part because of the aforementioned absence of the DEP and any other administration officials at the hearing.

The failure to do so has potentially serious implications, according to Van Abs (who is a columnist for NJ Spotlight).

“In the past plan, population was projected at 8.9 million people by 2040," he said. "Our 2015 population is at that level. The current projection is 10.4 million people, roughly equivalent to 200 million gallons per day" Van Abs added.

“Where will that demand occur and where will it be needed?’’ he asked. “We are real good at responding to crises, but real management requires avoiding a crisis.’’

Because of the state’s aging infrastructure, as much as 20 percent of treated drinking water is lost through leakage before it ever reaches customers and businesses, according to previous studies..

For those reasons and others, the lack of an updated plan drew sharp criticism from conservationists and others.

“This is an ongoing headache,” said Bob Keckes, a former administrator in DEP. “One-third of the state’s watershed areas are being stressed by water allocations.’’

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the Christie administration’s failure to adopt a water supply master plan “one of the most shameful’’ failures of its administration. Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean (R-Union) challenged that characterization, noting previous Democratic administrations also failed to update the plan.

But Jennifer Coffey, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, warned time is running out to deal with the state’s water problems.

“There are environmental alarms going off,’’ she said, citing the need to build a desalination plant in Cape May and intrusion of saltwater into groundwater supplies because of increased demand. “We have written too many checks and they will bounce.’’

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