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Long-Awaited Plan for Management of Water Resources in New Jersey

More than two decades in the making, the state’s Water Supply blueprint finally has been updated to the surprise of many who thought Christie administration would run out the clock on it

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Skeptics said it would have to wait until Gov. Chris Christie leaves office, and politicians said development plans couldn’t be made without it — but 21 years after it was last published, the New Jersey Water Supply Plan has finally been updated.

The long-awaited document, last published in 1996 despite a legal requirement for an update every five years, has been repeatedly demanded by water-supply professionals, political leaders and environmentalists who say it is an essential tool that allows the state to plan for development, make allowance for droughts, and avoid the environmental damage that comes with over-pumping streams.

The blueprint also traditionally looks at water-quality standards, what capital improvements are needed, and whether there should be interconnections between water systems.

Report says NJ has enough water

The new document, published by the Department of Environmental Protection late Monday, says the state has enough water to meet future needs provided it increases conservation, addresses the deteriorating pipework beneath the streets of many older cities, and achieves connections between systems.

Per-capita use of potable water dropped to about 125 gallons per day in 2015 from 155 gallons per day in 1990, due in part to the increased use of more water-saving devices in people’s homes, the report says. It estimates that of 1,520 million gallons a day that’s available to the state, 211 million gallons goes unused.

The report divides the state into 20 “watershed management areas,” of which four are “stressed” and another 11 would become stressed if their waterways were pumped at rates allowed by current permits. It says that withdrawals from surface water sources and aquifers should strike a balance between human and ecological needs.

Its recommendations include working with farmers to better assess future needs, planning for droughts, and coordinating policy with the local management plans for the Highlands and Pinelands regions.

The biggest challenges for water-supply planners, the report says, include shifts in residential populations and industries, the unpredictable weather that is expected to come with climate change, and dim public awareness of the need to invest in decaying water infrastructure.

Calls for ‘improved asset management’

“This Plan promotes improved asset management, targeted investment in our existing infrastructure and new projects that will improve the interconnection and operability of our existing water supply assets,” the 92-page document says.

The report’s release in the final months of the Christie administration surprised many observers, some of whom had said the governor didn’t want to release a report that might be negative for development interests. Skeptics had predicted that any update would have to wait for a new governor.

“New Jersey has been flying blind with respect to the sustainability of its water supply,” said Chris Sturm, managing director for policy and water at New Jersey Future. “It’s going to take some time to review this, but it’s a great step forward, and frankly, a big relief to have what looks like a comprehensive framework for balancing traditional water use with protection of our water resources.”

Sturm said the document would “finally kick off an important conversation” which will include three public meetings on the plan at different locations in July.

Published after ‘decades’ of waiting

But Bob Kecskes, who headed the DEP’s water supply planning section for 25 years until he retired in 2011, criticized the report’s division of the state into broad watershed management areas which he said ignore serious water shortages in smaller sub-watersheds.

In reality, Kecskes argued, there are about 150 watersheds in New Jersey, of which about a third are in “deficit,” meaning that they are being ecologically damaged because too much water is being withdrawn from them. He said he made the deficit assessment before leaving the DEP but after the last report was published in 1996.

“When you look at the state water supply availability from 150 watersheds, it doesn’t look good,” Kecskes said. “So they combined everything into the bigger watershed management areas. There’s so much masking that can occur, that it becomes of limited utility.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9th) welcomed the plan, saying he was pleased that Gov. Christie had finally published it after “decades” of waiting. “Clean water is a precious resource that should not be wasted,” Pascrell said in a statement. “Thankfully, the wheels have been put in motion to ensure just that.”

‘Flawed and incomplete’

Jennifer Coffey, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, and a member of the state’s Water Supply Advisory Council — which repeatedly urged the administration to release the plan — also said the new document represents a step forward. “I’m happy to see that the State of New Jersey is taking its obligations seriously by putting forward a plan that is more than 20 years overdue,” she said.

But Coffey said some sections of the report, such as where water comes from, appears to be a compilation of data that was already on the DEP website, while other sections such as promoting the efficient use of freshwater resources don’t qualify as policies. “That’s a given, not a policy,” she said.

The most negative review came from New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel who called the document “out-of-date, flawed and incomplete” and accused it of failing to address groundwater contamination, climate change and sea-level rise.

“We’ve waited 20 years for the Water Supply Master Plan update and it is so flawed that it shouldn’t have been released,” Tittel said in a statement. “It is no wonder the DEP kept the plan quiet for so many years because it doesn’t come up with a plan to protect our water supply.”

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who often covers water and other environmental issues.

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