How Long Can New Jersey’s Drinking-Water Supplies Hold Out?

Tom Johnson | January 13, 2015 | Energy & Environment
Environmentalists want to know why the administration is stalling on a much-needed draft of a drinking-water master plan

Compared with many other states, New Jersey has a relatively modest abundance of drinking water — ample surface water and groundwater supplies, and enough rainfall each year to usually avoid droughts.

But for all that, the state faces serious challenges. They range from shrinking groundwater supplies in some locations, potential water deficits in others, and an aging water infrastructure that needs billions of dollars of investment.

Still, the state has not revised its water supply master plan since 1996, a failure that has drawn sharp criticism from environmentalists and others worried that New Jersey’s economic growth could be hamstrung by uncertainty about water.

“For New Jersey’s long-term prosperity, it is not only an environmental issue, but also a quality of life issue as well as an economic issue,’’ said Chris Sturm, a senior policy analyst at New Jersey Future. “It’s definitely a concern.’’

According to people familiar with the issue, a new draft water supply master plan has been sitting in the governor’s office for a few years without any action.

“At this point, nobody outside the state Department of Environmental Protection and the governor’s office know why the reasons for the delay,’’ said Dan Van Abs, a member of the Water Supply Advisory Council, which helped gave input on the still-unreleased plan.

Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the DEP, said the plan is still under review but may be released later this year. “It was never dropped, but it got put on the side burner when we had to put the state back together,’’ he said, referring to extreme storms, such as Hurricane Sandy.

That explanation failed to sway Van Abs, a water quality expert at the DEP and now a professor at Rutgers University. “It wears thin as an excuse at this point,’’ he said.

Others said the state is failing to act on the plan because it would impose new costs on both homeowners and businesses. The projected cost of upgrading the state’s aging drinking water infrastructure is expected to be as much as $8 billion, according to a study by a blue-ribbon panel dubbed “Facing our Future.’’

“The assumption on the outside is anything that costs money is on the back burner,’’ said Michael Catania, executive director of the Duke Farms Foundation and a member of the blue-ribbon panel. “The longer we wait, the more it is going to cost.’’

The last water supply master plan done nearly two decades ago concluded most of the state has viable groundwater and surface-water supplies, although with one big caveat.

“However, even plentiful precipitation does not guarantee that droughts will not cause major water supply disruptions or that (groundwater) aquifers will be depleted,’’ the plan said.

The depletion of groundwater is a big concern in South Jersey, particularly in Cape May County and around the Maurice River in Cumberland County. In the former, saltwater intrusion is affecting drinking-water supplies. In the latter, stream flows are being affected by groundwater withdrawal, a problem that affects ecological habitats.

Elsewhere, environmentalists argue that the state needs to protect more open space in the New Jersey Highlands, which provides drinking water to millions of residents.

“There are increasing challenged and strained water supply that are close to being depleted,’’ said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, who worries that shortages in the future will lead to more pressure to withdraw water from vast underground supplies beneath the New Jersey Pinelands.

To others, the failure to adopt a new water-supply master plan is underscored by the fact that many of its assumptions were based on the 1990 census. Since then, there have been two more censuses done in 2000 and 2010.

Ragonese said the state has incorporated new studies by the U.S. Geological Survey and others into the new state draft plan. “It’s not outdated; it has tremendous value,’’ he said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, had another view. “The deliberate holding back of the water-supply master plan is the biggest policy failure of the administration,’’ he said.