The water resources in the Pinelands are impaired by too much development of land in the wrong areas and too much withdrawal from the vast aquifer underlying much of the region, according to a report issued yesterday.
The report, “Growing Smart and Water Wise — Protecting Water Resources in the Growth Areas of the Pinelands,’’ suggests a range of steps the state, the Pinelands Commission, and local governments ought to take to rectify the situation. They include tightening the regulatory framework for withdrawals from the aquifer and encouraging other water-supply alternatives, including conservation.
The Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer, a shallow source of groundwater containing 17 trillion gallons of water, has been called the lifeblood of the Pine Barrens, a 1-million-acre preserve that is home to rare plant species found nowhere else in the world. The aquifer feeds most of streams and wetlands in the Pinelands and helps maintain the ecological balance of the region and the state’s coastal estuaries.
“What the report shows, we’ve got to be more careful on how we grow in the Pinelands,’’ said Chris Sturm, senior director of state policy at New Jersey Future, which released the study. The William Penn Foundation funded the study.
Problems are already occurring in communities in the Pinelands. In Egg Harbor and Tuckerton, pollution from fecal coliform — a type of bacterial contamination that can cause serious health consequences — led to the closing of shell-fishing beds in Tuckerton Creek.
Other communities, like Hammonton in Atlantic County, face acute constraints on future growth due the difficulty of expanding their current drinking-water supplies and wastewater capacity, according to the report.
But Hammonton, as well as other towns, is responding positively — pushing water conservation and encouraging residents to buy more water-efficient appliances, according to Steve DiDonato, mayor of the town. “We believe we will be able to grow, but at a reasonable pace,’’ he said.
The report largely drew on a previous study released in June by Dan Van Abs, an associate research professor at Rutgers University.
Van Abs said water resources in areas of the study showed significant environmental impacts from development, much of it prior to the passage of the Pinelands Act or outside of the Pinelands area. Unfortunately, watershed boundaries transcend municipal lines, according to the New Jersey Future report.
“There are a lot of impacts we have seen in the Pinelands that predate the Pinelands Act in neighboring areas that have grown,’’ Van Abs said.
The report noted that although future projected growth will be slower than in recent decades, it will exacerbate impacts on the region’s water resources unless carefully located and designed to minimize stormwater runoff.
However, the report notes that neither the Pinelands Commission nor the state Department of Environmental Protection fully address issues of water quality in the undeveloped watersheds that are designated for future growth.
The report recommends that the state government and the Pinelands Commission strengthen the regulatory framework for water withdrawals from the aquifer, encourage more efforts to conserve water use, and explore other alternatives for water supplies for communities.
The recommendations are driven by the fragility of the Pinelands system, where excessive withdrawals from the aquifer can cause wetlands and ponds to dry out, threatening the region’s plants and animal habitat, according to the report.
“With this aquifer, overpumping harms the rest of nature,’’ said Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, a group dedicated to preserving the reserve. “It’s so vulnerable.’’
Montgomery said the state should adopt a new approach on how it manages withdrawals from the aquifer.
The report made other recommendations, urging municipalities to establish stormwater utilities to manage runoff from storms; adopt green practices, such as rain gardens to capture runoff and allow it to seep into the aquifer; and improve the state’s water-supply planning efforts.