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Draft Water Plan Leaves Critics Dissatisfied on Several Key Fronts

The plan, they contend, doesn’t do enough to anticipate crises, head off likely deficits, and address water-quality issues, like lead in drinking supplies

spruce run
Low water level in Spruce Run reservoir makes it clear at a glance why the DEP did not lift the drought warning in Hunterdon County.

For the past few years, the environmental community has badgered the Christie administration to update the decades-old state water supply master plan, a task it finished two months ago.

It was hardly worth the wait, according to some. At a hearing yesterday on the draft plan prepared by the state Department of Environmental Protection, most speakers faulted the proposal, arguing it falls short in many areas, including strong recommendations to deal with potential water deficits around New Jersey.

“This plan is a disgrace,’’ David Pringle, campaign director of Clean Water Action of New Jersey told the agency’s staffers at the hearing. “It is such a weak plan, to release it now is a disservice to the state.’’

The draft plan, last revised in 1996, was released this past May after many months of demands from Democratic lawmakers, water-supply professionals, and conservationists. It is a generally upbeat document that says the state has enough water to meet future needs as long as the public enhances water conservation efforts and ensures investments are made in an aging drinking water infrastructure.

No crisis planning

While some speakers applauded the department for finishing the plan and updating the status of water supplies and use of the resource, others lambasted the agency for failing to spell out specific actions to deal with potential crises.

“This is a plan in name only,’’ argued Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “This document obscures the building crisis for water supply in this state.’’

Much of the criticism revolved around recommendations, or the lack thereof, dealing with areas of the state likely to suffer water deficits in the future. The plan identifies four areas with water resources already at stress, and 11 more with potential deficits.

“We need to address the deficit watersheds,’’ said Wilma Frey, senior policy manager at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, questioning why the plan does not include any constraints on new water-allocation permits in areas where deficits are occurring. Water-allocation permits allow new withdrawals of water from streams, rivers, and other supplies.

Identified deficits

Frey noted that of the four watershed areas identified with deficits, one is located in the New Jersey Highlands and two are in the Pinelands, both major sources of drinking water.

Others suggested the department is too focused on the quantity of water instead of the quality of the resource. “There’s a lot of work left to do,’’ said Bill Kibler, policy director of the Raritan Headwaters Association. “You can’t separate water quality from water quantity. Flint, Michigan has been wrestling with this for a long time.’’

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, also said the plan is weak on dealing with a variety of water-quality issues, including contamination of drinking-water wells, overdevelopment, and lead-tainted water in public schools. “We’re running out of water and we’re running out of time,’’ he said.

The hearing, followed up by another last evening in Lawrence Township, are two of four scheduled by the DEP. At the conclusion, the agency will respond to comments and move to adopt the plan, but critics say the plan is likely to be revisited by the new governor.

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