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Opinion: NJ Needs a Better Approach to Water Supply Planning

The key is finding a balance between specific requirements to guide future administrations, without getting so prescriptive as to constrain evolution

Daniel J. Van Abs
Daniel J. Van Abs

My career has been entwined with water-supply planning in New Jersey from my first job after graduate school, when the 1982 New Jersey Water Supply Master Plan had just been adopted and my organization was heavily involved in advocacy regarding its implementation.

Later, having moved to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), I was project manager and co-author for the 1996 New Jersey Statewide Water Supply Plan. Since leaving NJDEP for other state agencies and now at Rutgers, my role has shifted to providing input on development of the latest draft plan as a technical advisor to the Water Supply Advisory Council.

All three plans were developed to meet requirements of the 1981 Water Supply Management Act, which establishes the major objectives for the Statewide Water Supply Plan and requires its revision at least every five years. Full disclosure: Through Rutgers, I also am working on a project with NJDEP to improve water-demand projections for a future plan update.

Water resources management has evolved a great deal since the 1981 Act was adopted. Our available data and models are far more detailed and sophisticated. We have a better understanding of how water quality affects water supply, how development can change surface water and aquifer supplies, and how water demands differ around the state. The question is whether the 1981 Act is still sufficient for New Jersey. A review of the new draft plan and the legal requirements suggests several ways in which the Water Supply Management Act requirements now fall short and would benefit from improvements.

The legal requirements for the Statewide Water Supply Plan are quite basic, which provides for useful flexibility but also allows for inadequate planning, if an administration doesn’t really want to address the hard questions. By law, the Statewide Water Supply Plan “shall include, but need not be limited to, the following:”

  1. “An identification of existing Statewide and regional ground and surface water supply sources, both interstate and intrastate, and the current usage thereof;”

  2. “Projections of Statewide and regional water supply demands for the duration of the plan;”

  3. “Recommendations for improvements to existing State water supply facilities, the construction of additional State water supply facilities, and for the interconnection or consolidation of existing water supply systems, both interstate and intrastate;”

  4. “Recommendations for the diversion or use of fresh surface or ground waters and saline surface or ground waters for aquaculture purposes;”

  5. “Recommendations for legislative and administrative actions to provide for the maintenance and protection of watershed areas;”

  6. “Identification of lands purchased by the State for water supply facilities that currently are not actively used for water supply purposes, including, but not limited to, the Six Mile Run Reservoir Site, with recommendations as to the future use of these lands for water supply purposes within or outside of the planning horizon for the plan; and”

  7. “Recommendations for administrative actions to ensure the protection of ground and surface water quality and water supply sources.”

Based on these general requirements, the new draft plan meets the letter of the law, primarily because the law is so open-ended. In a few ways, the new draft is a major improvement on the 1996 plan, especially regarding the first requirement.

The 2017 draft plan incorporates the results of decades of scientific work and modeling regarding aquifer (ground water) and surface-water supplies. It incorporates a far better understanding of recent water demands than was feasible in the 1990s. It also takes a general concept from prior plans — that river ecosystems should be protected from excessive water withdrawals — and establishes a statewide approach for assessing where such exceedances exist.

This approach was also used in the Highlands Regional Master Plan, and both are based on prior work by the New Jersey Geological and Water Survey. While one could (and I do) argue for better protection of more ecologically sensitive streams instead of the proposed “one threshold fits all” approach, the technical work backing the draft plan is very solid.

The fourth requirement of the 1981 Act is easily met, as aquaculture in New Jersey is limited, for the most part, either for shellfish in saline waters or for the state fish hatcheries in Pequest and Hackettstown. The sixth requirement is also easily met by the draft plan’s recommendations that areas preserved for future reservoirs continue to be reserved for that purpose.

Planning horizons

Where the draft plan falls short has to do with the other requirements. For one, it uses 2020 as its target year for water-demand projections, even though the 1996 plan included rough estimates to the year 2040. Water-supply plans the world over use long planning horizons because it can take decades to implement major water-supply projects and to significantly improve water conservation. However, the 1981 Act’s second requirement only calls for projections “for the duration of the plan,” not a specific planning horizon.

Regarding the third requirement, recommendations for improved and additional water supply facilities are couched in general terms, with little sense of when new facilities should be constructed; likewise, for interconnections among systems. Specific recommendations are missing for addressing current deficits. And there is very little regarding the protection of watersheds and water-supply sources, the fifth and seventh requirements, even though this was a major focus of the 1996 plan.

Overall, the draft plan often sounds as if it were written by an outside entity imploring NJDEP to consider action, rather than as the state government policy document it is, telling New Jersey residents and businesses “this is what we intend to do.” Once again, though, the 1981 Act provides no sense of what is “sufficient” planning.

The 1981 Act, then, seems entirely too malleable, allowing administrations over time to either ignore the five-year update requirement or to engage in technical planning without any real sense of clear policy and intended results. Several changes to the 1981 Act would help ensure that water-supply planning both occurs and has substance:

  • Require a minimum planning horizon of 20 years, or the furthest year for which municipal population projections are available from our three metropolitan planning organizations: the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, the South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization, and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. Currently, all three have adopted municipal projections to the year 2040.

  • Require that the “identification of existing Statewide and regional ground and surface water supply sources” include protection of ecologically sensitive waters, including the Pinelands, the Highlands Preservation Area and Protection Zone, back bays in coastal South Jersey, and fresh waters that are designated for non-degradation (known as FW1 and Category 1 waters).

  • Require that projections of water supply availability, water demands and threats to water supplies include consideration of reasonably potential impacts of sea-level rise, changes in rainfall patterns, and temperature increases to the planning horizon plus at least 20 years.

  • Require updated current water demands and updated water-demand projections based on the latest population projections. Updated estimates of net water availability (current and projected) should be required for each major water-supply source. Finally, the update should include a plan of action to address all existing and projected water-supply deficits and threats to water-supply sources. These approaches can include increased supplies (such as reservoirs), demand reductions (for example, conservation, efficiencies, lower water losses), or both.

  • Require an evaluation of water-use efficiencies and water losses, the establishment of metrics for assessing where improvements should reasonably be made, and a program for achieving those improvements through regulatory and non-regulatory approaches.

  • Require updates every five years, as in the current law. However, the lack of a forcing mechanisms means than an administration can ignore this provision with impunity. A new provision is needed that enforces the five-year schedule. One option is to prevent the NJDEP from using funds from the 1981 Water Supply Bond Fund or any other water-supply bond act if the plan is not updated within five years. Another would be to prevent the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Finance Program from providing loans for water supply projects if plan updates are not adopted on time.

The key is finding a good balance between enough specific requirements to guide future administrations, without getting so prescriptive as to constrain the evolution of water supply planning.

Daniel J. Van Abs is currently associate professor of practice 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 and watershed and regional environmental management. With Karen O’Neill, he is co-editor and co-author of “Taking Chances: The Coast After Hurricane Sandy” from Rutgers University Press. The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.

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