Billboard Targets Diluted Rules for Protecting Aquifers

Environmentalist groups put up clean-water billboard outside DEP building in Trenton

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When state Department of Environmental Protection employees exit their building on East State Street in Trenton, they are greeted by a huge billboard imploring them to protect drinking water supplies.

“Got Water? Thank the Pinelands & Highlands,’’ the billboard says.

It is a not-so-subtle reference to what many conservationists perceive as the Christie administration’s attempts to weaken regional plans that help protect the drinking water supplies of 6.4 million people in the state.

Eileen Swan, former executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Council, is prominently featured in the billboard, which is across from the state DEP building in the capital. A smiling Swan is holding up a glass of water against a background of a waterway and forests.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to communicate with the DEP and they can’t answer back,’’ said Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, which paid for the billboard along with the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

Somers declined to say how much the billboard cost, although it is the second one posted by the groups outside the DEP building. “It was surprisingly affordable,’’ she said. “This is us trying to be creative and think out of the box.’’

Swan was unceremoniously dumped from her position as executive director of the Highlands Council] last March after the Christie administration packed the board with new members, some of whom were highly critical of the act creating the Highlands protection law. She is now a policy manager for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

Her dismissal enraged most environmental groups], which regarded Swann as a good manager for implementing a regional master plan to protect the drinking water of millions of New Jerseyans.

“The Christie administration doesn’t even appear to be interested in either the Pinelands or the Highlands,’’ Somers said. The sentiment has been shared by other environmentalists who worry a new strategic investment plan proposed by the administration will further erode the regional plans.

The groups’ previous ad on the billboard outside DEP also focused on water issues: “The Highlands Regional Plan: 4 years old. New Jersey’s water supply: A billion years old. The Pinelands Regional Plan: 34 years old. Without regional planning: Gone in a generation.’’