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Opinion: Will the Garden State Be Ready When the Next Drought Arrives?

New Jersey’s better off than California, but we aren’t fully prepared to cope with a water-supply crisis

Daniel J. Van Abs
Daniel J. Van Abs

Can you remember when New Jersey last suffered a major drought?

What you remember might depend on how you use water. Farmers will focus on times when rainfall just wouldn’t come during the growing season. Those with their own wells will remember when their pumps were pulling air instead of water. But the majority of New Jersey residents and businesses depend on public water supplies, and the primary impact of droughts are prohibitions on outdoor water uses and exhortations to conserve indoors.

The last major water-supply drought in New Jersey was in 2001-2002, 13 years ago. That drought predates hurricanes Irene, Lee and Sandy, and so might have well been in the history books in terms of the public memory.

As with bad storms, our ability to handle droughts depends a lot on familiarity. The more frequently they happen, the more we know the drill. When they are rare, good habits fade away.

Those who pay attention are aware of the severe droughts in California, resulting in mandated 25 percent reductions in water use. In recent years, Texas has also suffered from a severe drought that has forced some small towns to truck in water for their residents. If you pay attention to more remote areas, you will be aware that Sao Paulo in Brazil and parts of Australia are very short of water, as well.

How does New Jersey compare in our ability to make it through a drought?

In some ways, we are far better prepared, due to the effects of past droughts. The droughts of the 1950s resulted in construction of Round Valley and Spruce Run reservoirs in Hunterdon County in the 1960s; the two reservoirs provide essential supplies for Central New Jersey.

The 1981 drought triggered development of additional water supplies for the northern urban areas, including Monksville Reservoir and the Wanaque South Project, a major pumping station and pipeline system. Rehabilitation of the Delaware & Raritan Canal was also a 1980s activity, increasing Central Jersey supplies even more.

The discovery that some major aquifers in South Jersey were overtapped led to construction of the Manasquan Reservoir in Monmouth County and the Tri-County Water Project in the Camden metro area.

The state has investigated nearly every major aquifer in New Jersey to determine how much water can be withdrawn without damaging the aquifers. We also have a fairly strong system of interconnections between water providers, so that a system in trouble can be helped by their neighbors, and state regulations allow the NJ Department of Environmental Protection to require such help during an emergency.

Unlike California and Texas, New Jersey has a fairly strong law for state allocation of water supplies for both ground and surface water supplies. This law was adopted in 1981, so we have a lot of practice with its implementation, and good data on water use over the years. That law established a method by which the governor can declare a drought emergency and the NJDEP can then order water conservation by every type of water user. We have had multiple droughts since then, so the basic framework for drought responses is known. On the opposite coast, California has only now declared its first drought emergency ever and had no controls on groundwater withdrawals until this past year (and doesn’t have good data on use). The new controls aren’t very strong even now.

By comparison, then, our history of droughts has resulted in a stronger system of water-supply systems, interconnections, regulations and emergency response powers. That sounds pretty good -- so what could go wrong?

In a word? Nature. But two types of nature. One is the tendency of the natural world to surprise us. As we know, life is what happens while we are making other plans. Our reservoir systems, our water allocations, and our expectations for the future are all based on what has happened in the past.

From a national perspective, our reservoirs are fairly small. Historically, our greatest vulnerability has been to extended droughts, like those of the 1960s and 1981-1982. However, in the mid-1990s, North Jersey was surprised by a short but severe dry period where some reservoirs were drained more quickly than we expected. Climate scientists are projecting that our region will experience more frequent, more severe droughts even while our average precipitation gets slightly greater. We should never expect nature to do what we expect.

Then there is human nature. People want to do what they are accustomed to doing. Effective water conservation in a drought takes time, education, agreement that the drought is really happening, a sense that people are being treated fairly, and, when restrictions are severe, recognition that there are penalties for noncompliance. All we have to do is look back at prior droughts to see the delays in drought emergency declarations as officials hope the next storm will make it unnecessary, the special pleading for water to address specific needs, the reluctance of local officials to involve the police in enforcement of lawn-watering bans, the falloff of conservation behavior as soon as a single good rain hits, and so on.

At least, when a drought hits, nobody has to pack and leave to avoid disaster -- at least, not so far, and we can all hope that no reservoir or aquifer ever goes entirely dry.

Still, natural disasters are similar in that the more often they happen, the more prepared we are for the next one.

Strangely enough, perhaps it has been too long since we have had a drought! (Though my colleagues who would have to handle the NJDEP drought hotline would surely disagree.)

So, we are better prepared in some ways, and less prepared in others due to lack of practice. When will the next drought begin? Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next year, but definitely we will experience more droughts. How bad will the next drought be? Please consult your Ouija board – I have no predictions.

Still, I remember my family moving to New Jersey in 1964, in the middle of that historic drought, and a friend who walked across the bottom of the Jersey City Reservoir in Parsippany without getting wet.

That was 51 years ago. We might be due.

Daniel J. Van Abs is currently associate research professor for Water, Society and Environment at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. He has spent more than 30 years as a professional, manager, and advocate in the fields of water resources, watershed and regional environmental management. The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.

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