Wet March Helps Ease the Threat of Summer Drought

Tom Johnson | March 24, 2011 | Energy & Environment
Above-normal rain and snow in March has filled northern New Jersey's reservoirs at or near capacity

With another modest spring snowfall yesterday, New Jersey would appear to be in pretty decent shape from a water supply perspective as it heads into the hot and normally drier summer months.

But that’s what officials were saying last year, too. With a warmer than normal spring and the driest summer since 1966, the northern parts of the state came very close to having a drought emergency declared, according to David Robinson, state climatologist.

“North Jersey was saved by some real timely rainfalls,” recalled Robinson, and March 2010 was the wettest on record since 1985. “Everything was soaked to the brim.”

The Recharge Season

Fortunately, March provided enough of a cushion to get through the summer, although a drought watch was declared in September, only to be lifted a month later by a huge rainstorm at the end of the ninth month. “That really kicked off the recharge season,” Robinson said.

This spring, the 13 reservoir systems that supply most of the water to the public in northern New Jersey are at or near 100 percent of capacity, which is above normal for this time of year. They include four reservoirs owned by United Water of New Jersey, five by the city of Newark, and two each by the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission and by Jersey City.

The above normal precipitation — more than twice what is typical — which included some snowfall, has helped overcome below average precipitation in December, January and February, Robinson said. Although it may not seem that way to residents who had to deal with all the snow of the past winter, “March has been another godsend,” Robinson said.

In the 90 days between December 7 and March 6, 14 of New Jersey’s 21 counties had rainfall above normal and two, Hudson and Bergen, had precipitation well above normal, according to the National Weather Service. Hudson had rainfall of 13.7 inches, 3.5 above normal while Bergen recorded 13.3 inches, 3.2 above normal.

Conditions are particularly good in most of the state, although groundwater levels are a bit below normal in the coastal south, Robinson said. “We don’t have major water concerns going forward into this summer,” Robinson said.

Given the events of last year, there are some who say the state needs to be more proactive in protecting water supplies. Critics note that the statewide water supply master plan has not been updated since 1996, and much of the data in is decades old.

The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is overhauling the statewide plan and expects a draft document to be out this May.

Meanwhile, on a separate track, the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU) has been holding stakeholder meetings with various water utilities and others about the possibility of allowing the utilities to recover the costs of routine infrastructure improvements without having to go through a contested rate proceeding. The mechanism, used in other states, is designed to spur utilities to make investments in their aging water infrastructure more rapidly.