Explainer: The Mystery of New Jersey’s Statewide Water Supply Plan

Jon Hurdle | September 13, 2016 | Energy & Environment, Explainer
Supposedly a vital part of state and local planning, the blueprint should be updated and published every five years but it’s twenty years since that happened

delaware river
What is it? A state government blueprint for planning the availability and quality of water across the state. It looks at changing needs for water depending on patterns of development; whether water quality is being maintained; whether the state is well-positioned to respond to droughts, and whether natural systems like streams and aquifers are being impaired by human demand.

Sounds pretty dull. Why should we care? Experts such as water company executives, academics, and state officials say the plan should be a crucial part of planning for development at state and local levels. It identifies the location of water supplies; whether and where there may be shortages; where interconnections should be made between local water systems; what water-quality standards should be met, and what capital improvements need to be made to ensure adequate supplies of clean water.

Without it, the experts say, the state risks water shortages from systems that are overstretched by development; aquifers could suffer from saltwater intrusion if they are over-pumped, and the ecology of streams could be disrupted by too much water withdrawal.

How often is it supposed to be published? A “revised and updated” plan is required at least once every five years, according to the Water Supply Management Act of 1981, which set up the plan.

What does the latest version say? That’s the problem. The latest report
was published in 1996 which is a lot more than five years ago. Since then, experts worry about increased pressure on water supplies, and there’s mounting concern that some supplies are being contaminated with chemicals. Whatever the last published report says about water supply is likely to be out of date.

Has a new plan been written? Yes, a panel of state officials submitted a new version to the governor’s office in 2012 but it hasn’t been published.

Why not? Isn’t the government required to make regular updates and publish them? Yes, but the latest revision disappeared into the governor’s office four years ago, and has not been seen in public since then.

How do officials explain the report’s continuing absence? Bob Martin, Commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, told lawmakers earlier this year that it takes a long time to talk to stakeholders and assess all the relevant policy issues arising from the new report, so he was unable to say when the report might be published. A spokesman for the governor’s office declined to explain the long delay or predict when the 2012 report could be published.

Do we have any idea what’s in the latest, unpublished, report? One former senior DEP official who was involved in writing the draft said it showed about a third of the state’s watersheds were exceeding water-withdrawal limits that had been previously set by the state. Since then, withdrawals have increased, putting more pressure on supplies, the former official said.

What might explain the delay? Critics, including the former senior DEP official, speculate that the governor’s office does not want to publish a report that would put the brakes on development.

Why is the report’s absence a problem? Planners won’t know whether, where, or to what extent the state is stressing existing water supplies; where population growth might be constrained by a shortage of water supply, or how to supply water to areas that have faced shortages. The longer the report goes unpublished, the longer it will be before water-supply issues are addressed, and that’s a problem because water-supply planning takes a long time, experts say.

Couldn’t planners just use the 1996 report? No. Experts say some influences on water supply have changed significantly in the last 20 years. Climate change, for instance, was less of a preoccupation at the time of the last report, and so recent changes in temperature and precipitation would not receive as much attention as in a more recent report.

Who is calling for the report’s release? Lawmakers and environmentalists have urged its publication without success. The same goes for the Water Supply Advisory Council, a statutory body of water-industry experts who asked the DEP in the spring of 2015 to see a copy of the report but were told it had been sent to the governor’s office.