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DEP Declares Drought Watch in 12 Counties; Urges Consumers to Cut Water Use

State agency warns that if dry spell continues tougher measures to ensure adequate supplies could be put in place

oradell reservoir drought
Low water levels in New Jersey reservoirs like the one in Oradell have led the DEP to declare a drought watch.

New Jersey officials on Wednesday issued a drought watch for all or parts of 12 counties in an effort to conserve water supplies after scarce summer rainfall and in the expectation of another dry month in October.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin called on consumers to conserve water, and warned that tougher measures to ensure adequate supplies could be implemented if significant rainfall doesn’t resume in coming weeks.

“We are asking residents to be aware of the situation and use water more carefully and deliberatively, especially when it comes to lawn watering and other nonessential uses. The goal is to moderate water demand through voluntary conservation,” Martin said in a statement.

The drought watch, the first since August 2010, was put into effect mostly because reservoirs in northern and central Jersey have dropped to as low as 60 percent of capacity, and because of declining stream flows and lower ground water levels.

The drought watch covers the northeast, central and coastal north water-supply regions.

In the northeast, the combined storage of 13 reservoirs dropped to about 75 percent of capacity on September 21 from more than 90 percent at the end of June, according to a website run by the DEP.

The site also shows that four reservoirs operated by United Water of New Jersey are only about 60 percent full, while two owned and operated by the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission have also dropped to about 60 percent of capacity.

In Bergen and northern Hudson counties, supplies to some 800,000 people from United Water of New Jersey are potentially vulnerable to disruption because they depend on other major suppliers when demand is high, the DEP said. If current conditions persist, interconnected water systems could be adversely affected, the agency said.

Other reservoirs showing declining storage include the Spruce Run and Manasquan reservoirs in Hunterdon and Monmouth counties.

“The purpose of the watch is to raise public awareness, formally alert all water suppliers in the region of the situation, and to seek voluntary cooperation to preserve existing supplies in the affected regions, with water demand still high,” the DEP said in a statement.

Martin said it is not unusual to see reduced stream flows and lower groundwater by the end of the summer, but current conditions have produced “signs of stress” in the water-supply system that he said warrant public conservation efforts.

He urged residents to save water by measures such as avoiding watering lawns in the hottest part of the day; running dishwashers and washing machines only when full, and fixing leaks in faucets and hoses.

DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said the drought watch had been prompted in part by the forecast for a “dry and warm” October, suggesting there is no early prospect of significant rainfall.

The state really needs a “good soaking rainfall” to replenish the reservoirs on which the three affected regions are especially dependent, Hajna said.

If the rains don’t come, officials might upgrade the drought watch to a warning, under which the DEP would require water suppliers to obtain water from alternative sources or transfer water from other areas of the state where it is relatively plentiful, Hajna said.

The U.S. Geological Survey, which provides DEP with data on stream flows, ground water levels, and precipitation, is seeing most flows “below normal” or in the “moderate hydrologic drought” category, said Richard Kropp, director of the USGS New Jersey Water Science Center in Lawrenceville.

A few locations are in “severe” or “extreme” drought status, but those are isolated instances, Kropp wrote in an email. He said the agency provides data to the DEP but does not issue recommendations.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, operated by several federal agencies, 88 percent of New Jersey, or more than twice as much as a year ago, was “abnormally dry” in the week of September 15. The northeastern area, representing 17 percent of the state, was classified as experiencing “moderate drought.” Overall, 4.3 million New Jerseyans live in areas experiencing some level of drought, the federal agency said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the drought watch highlighted the need for the DEP to require, not just recommend, conservation measures.

“We believe we need to implement conservation measures much sooner,” Tittel said in a statement. “A drought watch, not just a drought warning, should require conservation.”

He said planning for drought conditions could be improved if the state published its Water Supply Master Plan, a document last revised in 1996 but which is still under review by state officials.

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia.

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