Wet Weather May Help NJ Avoid Drought Emergency

The recent rainfall has replenished reservoirs, but environmentalists, DEP and water companies disagree on long-term health of water supply

With the recent days of rainfall, it appears New Jersey may once again avert a drought emergency this fall, but questions abound whether the state is prepared to deal with its long-term water supply needs.

Consider this: the state has not updated its water supply plan since 1996 and it based much of that document on data more than a decade old, according to Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. And a drought watch was put in effect earlier this summer for five northern counties even though the 12 months from April 2009 through March 2001 were the wettest on record in New Jersey, according to David Robinson, state climatologist.

To some, those factors are a recipe for a crisis, but state Department of Environmental Protection officials and executives from some water companies argue otherwise. The overall water supply situation in New Jersey is adequate, although some improvements may need to be made to meet demand in the future, they say.

“Overall, there is adequate supplies, although localized problems do exist,’’ said Michele Putnam, director of water supply for DEP. Putnam said the agency is working on a new draft water supply master plan, which it hopes to complete by next May, that will identify areas where deficits are expected to occur.

Beyond identifying potential deficits, the draft plan will assess areas in New Jersey where low water flows have a potential ecological impact, Putnam said.

The current master plan projects the same region now under a drought watch as experiencing deficits in the future. In any given summer, the plan says the region, particularly Bergen County, could run out of water if conditions were severe enough, Tittel noted, during a hearing on the drought at the Millburn Library.

‘An Asphalt Desert’

“New Jersey might be the first state in the Northeast to run out of water and that’s because we are creating an asphalt desert,’’ Tittel said. “We’ve put a system out of balance, where we enter into
cycles of floods and droughts.”

At least one water executive urged action to deal with the problems in the northeastern portion of the state.

“The real challenge is to support the financial investment to ensure there are adequate supplies to meet the long-term needs of the Northeast region,’’ said Steve Tambini, vice president of operations for New Jersey American Water, the state’s largest water company. “This event will go away, but without a long-term solution through a commitment to new supplies or inter-basin contract capacity, we will undoubtedly face the same challenges in the future as we did during previous drought periods.’’

United Water executives said the situation in the northeast has improved with the wet weather of the past week. Rich Henning, a spokesman for the company, said its reservoir system is now at 68 percent of capacity, about the norm for this time of year.

As for the future, Donald Distante, director of master planning for United Water, said the company is studying two different projects to increase its system capacity. One involves building a reservoir on the Passaic River at Dundee Dam in Clifton, and the other involves reusing water taken out of the Hackensack River watershed by two wastewater plants in Rockland County, which now discharge it into the Hudson River, he said.

“There are some improvements that need to be made, but overall the system is in very good shape,’’ Distante said. He credited it with progressive steps New Jersey took decades ago to tie several major water systems together so they can wheel water to locations where drought conditions might exists.