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As Drought Worsens, Renewed Calls for Release of Long-Overdue Water Plan

Water-supply advocates argue that plan — last updated in 1996 — can’t deal with current shortages, possible pollution from sewage treatment plants

Spruce Run Reservoir
Drought has deeply depleted the water level at New Jersey's Spruce Run Reservoir.

As New Jersey’s drought worsens, state advisers on water supply are renewing their call on the Christie administration to release a blueprint for water planning that has not been publicly updated since 1996 despite a legal requirement to do so every five years.

The Water Supply Advisory Council, a group of water company executives, nonprofits, and water users, is expected to urge Gov. Chris Christie and Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin to publish a new version of the Statewide Water Supply Plan that was submitted to the governor’s office in 2012 and has not been seen in public since.

Council members and many other water-supply advocates have been arguing for years that it’s not possible to plan for development without a statewide plan that anticipates where and how much water will be needed, and how its quantity and quality can be sustained for the good of consumers, businesses and the environment.

Now, advocates say the ongoing drought makes it more urgent that the state has a coordinated strategy to make it easier to avoid water shortages in affected areas, lessen impacts on water quality from sewage-treatment plants, and ease environmental stresses in areas suffering from low rainfall.

The council’s new call for publication of the plan, agreed at a meeting on November 18, follows an attempt in April 2015 which was rejected by state officials.

“We have embarrassed the executive branch on numerous occasions but they just don’t seem to care,” said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Environment and Energy Committee. “I don’t know what he’s trying to do other than avoiding reality,” he said, referring to Gov. Chris Christie.

Smith said the lack of an updated plan makes water supply vulnerable to many changes such as saltwater intrusion, lead in school water supplies, and the presence of the toxic chemical chromium 6 in some public water systems that have become known since the last report was published 20 years ago.

“It should be the overall planning document for the expansion of water supply, for the protection of existing supply, and it should weigh up the infrastructure needs,” Smith said. “You’ve got to protect your water or human beings aren’t going to do real well.”

Smith’s committee had previously called on Gov. Christie for publication of an updated plan but to no avail, he said.

It’s unclear whether the latest version of the plan is in the governor’ office, or is undergoing another update at the DEP. Brian Murray, a spokesman for Christie, declined to say why the plan hasn’t been publicly updated since 1996; whether it is still in the governor’s office, and whether there are any plans for its release.

Murray referred questions on the plan to the DEP, whose spokesman, Bob Considine, said staff there are “still gathering the most updated data” for the plan.

“We are managing New Jersey’s water supply every day while developing the draft Water Supply Plan,” Considine wrote in an email. “When the draft plan is complete and ready for public comment, we will release it and schedule public hearings.”

Even though state officials rebuffed the council’s last request to see a copy of the updated plan, the panel has decided to try again because of the current stress on the state’s water supply, said Jennifer Coffey, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC), and a member of the council.

“Given the state of the drought, we are increasing our call for that plan,” she said. “Without the water supply plan, we are putting ourselves at increasing risk for drought because we are not managing our water in accordance with an overarching plan that accounts for how much we are using versus how much we are replenishing and how we are meeting all of our needs. Right now, it’s a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants operation without that plan.”

If the plan is, as the DEP previously told the council, still sitting on the governor’s desk, he has a “moral, ethical and perhaps legal obligation” to unveil an updated document, Coffey said.

Coffey said she was unable to attend the latest meeting but has seen the minutes and heard about the discussion of the water plan from other members.

Another council member who was at the meeting but spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the panel discussed making a new call for release of the plan. Council chairman Norman Nelson did not return a phone call seeking comment. A letter containing the appeal is expected to be approved at the next council meeting in December.

Given the long delay in publishing the plan, it’s unclear what it will contain if and when it is finally released. But one of the leading authors of the last update said that back in 2010 it showed that about a third of the state’s 151 watersheds were exceeding water-withdrawal limits that had been set by state officials.

Robert Kecskes, who headed the DEP’s Water Supply Planning Section for 25 years until he retired in 2011, said stresses on water supply have increased since he last saw the plan, and have become more acute in the current drought.

“The longer the drought goes on, the greater the pressure is going to be on the administration to release the plan,” Kecskes said.

Under a statewide plan, officials could cut upstream withdrawals, which would allow more water for reservoirs and sewage treatment plants, and would help aquatic organisms that have been stressed under the current conditions, Kecskes said.

“The limits that are in the plan that hasn’t been formalized are more rigorous,” he said, referring to the version that was submitted to the DEP in 2012. “They would make sure you can get through the drought with a little bit more robustness than currently exists.”

Precipitation in northern and central New Jersey is down by about a third from normal levels over the last eight months, and drought watches or warnings are in effect in most New Jersey and Pennsylvania counties bordering the Delaware River. On November 23, the Delaware River Basin Commission, an interstate regulator, began a drought watch, its first since 2010, giving it more power to conserve water in reservoirs and cut the amount of water pumped outside the basin.

The 1996 plan said the state’s normal precipitation of some 40 inches a year does not guarantee that droughts won’t interrupt water supply or that aquifers won’t be depleted.

It said the state had made “great strides” in improving water supply since adopting the first plan in 1982 following the passage the year before of the Water Supply Management Act and an accompanying law to provide bond funding for water improvements.

But it recognized changes in demand for water, development trends, and new knowledge of impacts on ecology, all of which led to the 1996 report being compiled by the DEP and its advisors.

The last version recommended better protection of water resources in light of the state’s growing population, better management of aquifer recharge, and the development of a long-term revenue source to acquire lands that would ensure clean sources of water.

The DEP would make minor changes to the plan periodically and conduct an “extensive revision” within the next “five to seven years” to reflect new projections on population and demand, improved understanding of regional water supply issues, and progress made on implementing the plan, the 1996 report said.

The state’s failure to publish the new plan puts it at odds with a 1981 law which said the plan should be updated at least every five years. Changes were made between 1982 when the first plan was published, and 1996 when the plan was completely rewritten but the DEP appears not to have continued that pattern, said Dan Van Abs, a Rutgers University professor who was the project manager for the 1996 report but is unable to comment on the unpublished update because of a confidentiality agreement.

“The department has not been doing that so I think it’s fair to say that they have not been meeting the test of the law,” he said. “The problem is of course that nothing happens if you don’t meet that law. There’s no legal hammer.”

If the state is resistant to legal requirements, advocates hope the drought will finally prompt publication.

“We are in a really bad water supply situation in New Jersey right now,” said Coffey of ANJEC. “If under that pressure we can’t move forward with a plan that moves us in the right direction, then I don’t know what kind of pressure will work.”

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia and often covers environmental issues.

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