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Op-Ed: Without a Water Plan, ‘New Jersey’s No. 1 Religion’ May Dry Up

New Jersey’s fragile water-supply system means we could experience a drought very quickly

dennis hart
Dennis Hart

In 2002, I discovered what the most popular religion is in New Jersey. It’s not Catholicism or Judaism or Islam. As the appointed “State Drought Czar” I quickly found out that lawn watering is the number one religion in New Jersey, with washing your car as a close second.

As I watch our fellow Americans in California and Arizona deal with a drought that has lasted more than six years, and follow the demands for release of the New Jersey State Water Supply Master Plan, I can’t help but think about how we, as a state, have wasted the past 13 years.

New Jersey is a water state. Not only does our average annual rainfall exceed that of Seattle, but we are also heavily dependent on water. Yet we have done little in decades to recognize, plan, and build for our future. This has been a failure of not only Democrats and Republicans but also us citizens as well.

Due to our fragile water-supply system we can experience a supply drought relatively quickly. When our next droughts hits I can easily predict the reaction to it. Our citizens’ first reaction, like fighting siblings, will be to demand that all golf courses not be able to water their fairways if the public is not able to water their lawns. Ignoring the fact that golf courses are a business like any other water-dependent business such as Anheuser Busch or a pharmaceutical plant.

This will be quickly followed by legislative hearings demanding to know what has been done by the state since the last drought. But a lack of rain or snowfall is only one cause of a water-supply problem. Due to the age and dilapidated condition of our water infrastructure, we are vulnerable to a major water main, pump station, or interconnection rupture, which could cripple portions of our state for a long time.

In August 1975 the city of Trenton water-treatment plant failed and the city was without water for 10 days. City government and most of Mercer County government offices where shut down. Schools in Trenton, Ewing, Lawrence, and Hamilton Townships could not open. Emergency supplies for firefighting were delivered over bridges via firehoses from Morristown, PA. A major system failure could put us right back into this situation, but if we act now we can avoid this type of crisis.

Now is the time for us to examine our water supply and our physical and management-delivery systems and set a course for the long-term benefit of our state, our environment, and our economy. This examination must include the following:

  • Water-conservation measures including the reuse of treated wastewater effluent need to be implemented in a vigorous manner.

  • New water supply and storage projects need to be planned and constructed. The last major supply projects completed in New Jersey were the very successful Manasquan Reservoir, but it is relatively small and was completed over 35 years ago, and the Tri-County Water Supply Pipeline.

  • The interconnections between our various systems are vital and need to be evaluated and upgraded. In particular, the connection between the city of Newark system and the systems in central New Jersey needs immediate action.

  • The extremely complicated political and administrative systems we have created to manage our water supplies have to be changed if we are to provide a safe and adequate supply of water.

During the 2002 drought the New Jersey DEP hotline handled thousands of calls each day from citizens asking for interpretations of the drought restrictions.

If we don’t act now we will be right back in the same position again with little to do but manage day-to day-issues, pray for rain, and answer questions such as my favorite one:

“Can I water my lawn?” “No!” “Can I wash my car?” “No!” “Can I give my dog a bath?” “Of course you can give your dog a bath.” “Can I give my dog a bath while he is standing on top of my car, which is parked on our lawn?”

Dennis Hart is a former assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and was the executive director of the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust. In 2002, Gov. James McGreevey appointed him state drought manager. He is currently the director of utility operations for the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey.

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