More Septic Systems for the Highlands Courtesy of New DEP Proposal?

State agency claims new water-quality data allows for loosening of current rules; opponents argue data is flawed

The state wants to loosen up the rules governing building in the New Jersey Highlands, changes critics say will allow up to 1,100 new septic systems and more development in the preservation area.

The proposal, to be published today in the New Jersey Register, is based on more extensive water-quality data concerning how much building could occur in the region, which supplies drinking water to more than 5 million residents.

Conservationists view the revisions as the latest effort by the Department of Environmental Protection to roll back protections in the Highlands, coming on the heels of other proposed rule changes that also have come under fire from Highlands advocates.

The Highlands are a sprawling 860,000 acres of forested ridges and rolling farmland in northern New Jersey that was originally protected under a law enacted 12 years ago.

If adopted, the latest rule would deal with how many septic systems would be allowed in the 414,000 acres of the Highlands preservation area, an issue that led to litigation over the existing rules by the New Jersey Farm Bureau. The bureau contended that the rules lacked any scientific foundation. The new rule would increase the potential number of septic systems by 12 percent, according to the DEP.

“The proposed septic system density standards provide a common sense, science-based approach to protecting the region’s precious water supplies, while creating reasonable opportunities for economic growth and jobs,’’ said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin.

Based on data collected from the U.S. Geological Survey, the agency contends the density of septic systems can be increased within the three different land-use categories in the preservation area without degrading water quality.

Critics of the proposal, however, say the data is flawed and predict it will have an adverse impact on water quality.

“It is part and parcel of the same problem,’’ said Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, referring to the latest rule proposal. “It is continuing to roll back protections in the Highlands.’’

Under the rule proposal, the number of septic systems could increase from one for 88 acres in the forested area (the most protected zone) to one system for every 23 acres. The number of acres per system in the unforested areas could drop from 11 or 12 to eight.

“These changes will severely harm our critical headwater areas, forested mountains, and endangered species, while causing more sprawl and pollution,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

The rule relies on pollution from nitrates, found in septic waste, as a gauge in determining groundwater quality. Somers, however, argued the data used by the DEP was from areas already developed where nitrate levels are likely higher. In areas where development hasn’t occurred, nitrate levels would be much lower and allowing more septic systems would degrade water quality.

By allowing more development in the preservation area, environmentalists contend it will further fragment forested areas that protect the region’s water supply and increase impervious cover that will reduce groundwater recharge.

The latest rule comes on the heels of another regulatory proposal, now on hold, that would further impair water quality by eliminating protections for special areas where streams form — known as headwaters — as well as buffer zones around highly protected streams. Beyond clean-water advocates, the rule also has raised concerns among officials of the regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

After the Legislature threatened to invoke a rare tool to rescind the rule proposal, the DEP agreed to hold off adopting the rule and meet with stakeholders concerned about the measure. No consensus on the issue has yet been reached.