Explainer: Managing Growth While Protecting Garden State’s Water Quality

The DEP claims its new sewer-planning proposal gives local authorities more say in the process, but environmentalists call it another rollback

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Few issues are as contentious as deciding where development should be allowed in the nation’s most densely populated state, particularly when those choices pose potential threats to New Jersey’s already impaired waters. More than 90 percent of the water in the state fails to meet federal clean-water standards, a problem caused by permitted discharges into rivers, bays, and the ocean and by runoff from storms in developed areas.

Perhaps no policy drives land-use outcomes as much as planning for new or expanded wastewater-treatment plants. Where sewer lines go and as they are extended, growth typically follows. Who and how those decisions are made are the focus of a new rule proposal by the Department of Environmental Protection, a measure that would significantly revise the state’s Water Quality Management Planning process.

What it does: The rule proposal would overhaul regulations governing the planning process for determining areas suitable for new sewer systems or sewer lines, changes that will give local and county officials more control in those decisions — authority that now rests with the DEP. The proposal aims to eliminate duplicative requirements that have created a cumbersome process for local officials, according to the DEP. If adopted, the new rule essentially would scrap many changes adopted in 2008 by the Corzine administration.

Why the DEP say it is overhauling the rules: The revisions proposed by the agency mirror changes in other regulations adopted by the Christie administration to reduce what they view as unnecessary red tape that hinders economic development and afford more flexibility to local officials. The department says the revisions maintain protections to steer growth away from environmentally sensitive land, such as areas with threatened or endangered species.

What critics are saying: The proposal marks the latest rollback of years of hard-won environmental protections designed to improve water quality and to preserve ecologically important land by the Christie administration, according to environmentalists. By making it easier to develop and expand sewers, it will lead to more sprawl and pollution, critics argue. Eliminating detailed analysis of proposed changes to sewers could lead to more strain on water supplies by increased growth in areas that cannot accommodate it, they say. The DEP also should not cede final say over water-quality planning to local officials and authorities, critics argued.

What proponents say: The changes will ease burdens on municipalities and foster greater cooperation between local and county officials and the DEP, according to supporters of the rule. The proposal also will give local officials more flexibility in making land-use decisions and mapping areas for wastewater infrastructure. Besides being overly complex, the existing rule has deterred economic growth in areas suitable for development, according to business groups and others.

Who has yet to weigh in: Neither the Legislature nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has commented in detail on the proposed changes. Both lawmakers and federal officials have raised significant concerns with another recent rule proposed by the DEP dealing with water quality and protections to avert flooding, saying the changes in the programs may not comply with existing federal requirements.

What happens next: The public comment on the rule ends on December 18. Before the DEP can act on the proposal, it must respond to comments made by the public at three public hearings, the last held yesterday in Trenton. The rule could face a legal challenge from environmentalists who have often challenged regulatory changes by the DEP during the Christie administration. Courts, however, typically defer to an agency’s expertise on technical issues.