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Explainer: Special Advisory Council Tracks Status of New Jersey’s Water Supply

Diverse group reports to state DEP on all aspects, present and future, of what may be state’s most precious commodity

round valley reservoir

What is the Water Supply Advisory Council? It’s a panel that, under a 1981 state law, advises New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection on all aspects of water supply including the New Jersey State Water Supply Plan, a long-range blueprint that hasn’t been published since 1996.

Who sits on it? Eleven representatives of public and investor-owned water companies, farmers, golfers, industrial, residential and commercial water users, landscape contractors, and academics. All members serve on a volunteer basis.

The current chairman is Norman Nelson, vice president of water systems for Van Note-Harvey, a Princeton-based engineering and environmental firm.

How do people get to be on the panel? They are nominated by the governor and approved by the state Senate for three-year terms after being proposed by the constituencies – such as residential users or farmers – they represent.

How does it get its assignments? From the DEP, which may seek the panel’s views on current issues such as the allocation of water supply from the Delaware River Basin, or from its own members, who may raise issues for consideration by DEP such as whether water-supply capacity matches the pace of development in certain parts of the state.

Does the DEP have to take its advice? No. The department doesn’t always act on the panel’s recommendations but has traditionally been receptive to its ideas, according to Dan Van Abs, a Rutgers professor who is a technical adviser to the council.

How does the council work with the DEP? By reviewing its recommendations on water use. For example, the DEP might be considering imposing water-use restrictions in response to a drought, and would want to run those plans by representatives of heavy users of waters, such as landscapers and golf-course managers.

“The Commissioner might go to the Council and ask ‘How do you view the current situation, and are these measures reasonable?’” said Jeff Hoffman, a DEP staffer who acts as a liaison between the department and the WSAC. “He wants to get the feeling of the council on what’s possible, and what would be effective.”

Why is the council in the news? Because in April it wrote to the DEP asking to see the latest draft of the New Jersey State Water Supply Plan, which the council had not seen since contributing revisions in 2012.

The council said the document has been kept under wraps by the administration for so long that some of its new members had never seen it. In its letter, the panel said it “could not guarantee” its support for the latest version of the plan because it had not been able to review edits which it understood have been made by staff in the offices of Gov. Chris Christie and DEP Commissioner Bob Martin.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, said on Monday he was unsure whether the department has responded to the council’s request but that he was “guessing” that DEP officials have not done so. Hajna called the report “a pretty solid working document” and said officials are “hoping for a release soon” without being more specific.

He played down expectations that the report will offer fine details such as water-supply projections for specific municipalities.

“Some people are expecting a real detailed schematic or blueprint for the management of water resources,” he said. “I’m not sure if that’s the case.”

But Van Abs, who contributed to the revisions up to 2011, said he expects the report will be a lot more detailed than the 1996 version.

Although he wasn’t able to discuss details because of a confidentiality agreement, Van Abs said he believes the new report will take a different approach.

“The Department has come out with pieces of technical information on water uses, technical methods for determining water availability, that we know are intended to be part of the plan,” Van Abs said.

He said the new plan will also take into account the effects of water supply on ecosystems, as well as on people.

Van Abs said the report was initially, and legitimately, delayed by the DEP’s response to Hurricane Sandy, which overshadowed all other efforts, but beyond that, he said he did not know why it has been out of public view for so long.

What other issues has the council been focused on? Meetings regularly assess current water-supply conditions; other recent agenda items have included saltwater intrusion at Cape May, and cooperation with the Clean Water Council, another panel that advises the DEP.

What’s on the minds of council members now? At its next meeting, on May 15 at the U.S. Geological Service offices in Lawrenceville, the council’s agenda will include current water-supply conditions, the current status of the Water Supply Plan, and updates on regulations and legislation.

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