Interactive Map: New Jersey’s Thirsty — Water Use on Rise in Garden State

Colleen O'Dea | August 14, 2015 | Map of the Week, Maps
Between 2000 and 2010 the total amount of water used by homes, businesses, and the state’s two nuclear plants surged by 40 billion gallons a year

Water use in New Jersey has increased, which environmentalists say could cause problems during the next drought.

The total amount of water used by families, businesses, and two nuclear power plants rose by 110 million gallons per day between 2000 and 2010, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey. That amounts to an increase of 40 billion gallons a year, or the equivalent of more than 60,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Public water use by homes and individual wells and fresh water to support aquaculture — for fish farming and fish hatcheries — all increased in 2010. That is the most recent data available, made public last fall; the USGS produces water-use estimates every five years. The largest increase was in water used in energy production — more than 200 million gallons a day, most of it salt water used to cool the tanks at the Salem and Oyster Creek plants. Usage for irrigation, livestock, industry, and mining all declined.

“There are so many factors that can change freshwater use,” said Daniel J. Van Abs, associate research professor for Water, Society and Environment at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. “Electrical power plants are getting more efficient, and some that have depended on freshwater withdrawals have been closed or less often used. Industrial uses change or stop. Agricultural uses can change wildly based on precipitation during the growing years. Residential uses change also depending on lawn-watering needs, but less than agriculture because there is always a base demand for residential water.” Van Abs also is a columnist for NJ Spotlight.

With relatively plentiful rainfall amounts and no major drought in more than a decade, the state has become complacent, said Jeff Tittel, head of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

“So far, we have been fairly lucky as the weather has been wetter than normal,” he said. “But we do not have the capacity to meet New Jersey’s needs during peak demand time, which is summer time, in future drought situations.”

Tittel said that the groundwater supply is “showing signs of depletion,” despite bountiful rainfall, and more wells are becoming unusable due to contamination from toxic sites. The state also does not have enough reservoirs to catch all the rainfall and even had to stop drawing water for drinking from five sites due to overdevelopment, he added.

“We are depending more and more on fewer and fewer sources,” Tittel said.

In a piece called, “The Case for Water Conservation in New Jersey,” The state Department of Environmental Protection’s website states, “Despite a relatively wetter period over the past four decades … water deficits are becoming increasingly common in the once ‘water rich’ Garden State.”

Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman, said the state does conduct “education efforts” about water conservation, but it’s up to local officials to order such conservation measures as limiting car washing and lawn watering when necessary. He did not respond by deadline to a request for the number of public water systems in the state operating in a deficit, but noted that the DEP has an online query where the public can look up information on systems one at a time.

Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, gave one example: Parsippany in Morris County has a six-million-gallons-per-day deficit. “And they just cleared a whole new area to build another Wegmans,” she said.

There are other areas of the Highlands that are “challenged,” as well, said Somers. There are families in West Milford that run out of water around this time of the year as their wells run dry and they have to have water trucked in, she said.

The Highlands Act was passed largely to deal with water-supply issues. But she said there is no concrete evidence yet on the results of the act because the New Jersey Highlands Council has not yet collected any data to monitor what has occurred since the passage of the law 11 years ago.

“The preservation-area rules have prevented the further loss or degradation of water in those areas,” said Elliot Ruga, the coalition’s policy director. “We’re not sure if there’s been any improvement yet.”

Van Abs, who formerly worked for the Highlands Council, said there are other parts of the state that are having problems, as well.

“There are definitely places in NJ where we should be conserving more because we already know of problems, regardless of droughts,” he said. He cited Southern Cape May County, where Cape May City opened a desalination plant 17 years ago to handle the encroachment of salt water into its water supply. “There may be places in the Pinelands where we are getting ecological damages due to withdrawals.”

Rick Kropp, New Jersey water science director with the USGS, said the state has created a system of interconnectivity among the reservoirs that helps it deal with drought conditions.

“It’s a very complicated, managed system,” he said. “By and large, I think they (the DEP) are in pretty good shape. It’s because of the effort they put in.”

But Kropp said climate change is making it harder to predict future water availability and needs because it appears to be changing weather patterns “in unpredictable ways.”

Water usage by the nuclear plants is particularly troubling because it is both wasteful and harmful, said Amy Goldsmith, director of New Jersey Clean Water Action.

“New Jersey’s nuclear plants do not have cooling towers, which is a direct violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Yet they have been reissued federal permits to operate,” she said. “They do not re-circulate water to cool. They suck it up then spit it out.”

The Salem plants used more than 3 billion gallons of water a day in 2010, according to the USGS data. Thermoelectric usage in Ocean County, home to the Oyster Creek plant, was almost 490 million gallons a day. According to Clean Water Action, some 3 billion fish are killed every year due to the Salem plants dumping of superheated water and pollutants into the Delaware River.

Clean Water Action and the Sierra Club both see one solution in the state water-supply master plan. Tittel said an update of the plan is long overdue — it dates back to 1996. And the state would be better off had it even just implemented more of the recommendations in that 20-year old document.

“There were alarm bells that we still have not dealt with,” Tittel said.

Van Abs said one of New Jersey’s biggest problems is controlling the demand for water during the summer, which has been increasing. The state needs sprinkler systems with automatic controls that do not water the lawn when the ground is already moist or when it is already raining, as often happens today. Another issue is accounting for water lost from leaks in public systems and in the connections from the system to buildings.

“New Jersey doesn’t really have a good handle on true water losses outside of the Delaware Basin, where the DRBC (Delaware River Basin Commission) has mandated better accounting,” he said. “We need to catch up to the best practices for water loss accounting.”