State Poised to Issue First Drought Warning in More Than a Decade

Tom Johnson | October 20, 2016 | Energy & Environment
Today’s public hearing of Department of Environmental Protection will document drought conditions in more than a dozen north and central counties

For the first time in 15 years, the state is expected to issue a full-blown drought warning.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is holding a public hearing today on drought conditions, a necessary prelude to declaring a drought warning for at least 12 northern and central counties where scant rainfall has emptied reservoirs.

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With much of the state experiencing severely low precipitation levels and some of New Jersey’s biggest reservoirs falling below 50 percent storage levels, it is all but certain a drought warning will be issued.

The drought warning gives the state agency more clout to work with water companies to manage supplies and move water between purveyors to address shortfalls and deficits in specific areas.

A warning is issued with the aim of averting a drought emergency declaration, which could lead to mandatory restrictions on water use by the public and businesses.

In anticipation of the hearing, an alliance of environmental groups renewed calls for the Christie administration to make public its long delayed Water Supply Master Plan, which has been bottled up in the governor’s office for the past couple of years. The plan, designed to address the state’s long-term drinking-water needs, has not been updated in 20 years.

Some said the department moved too slowly.

“Have they been asleep at the switch?’’ asked Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. “There’s no plan. If there is, it is somewhere in a file at the DEP.’’

This is the second consecutive year that the DEP has declared a drought watch. In addition to drinking-water reservoir levels reaching dangerously low levels, the DEP has listed all stream flows and groundwater levels for the entire state that have been moderately, severely, or extremely dry for the past 90 days.

The DEP’s expected drought warning could affect 12 counties — Bergen, Hudson, Essex, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Passaic, Somerset, and Union counties. A drought watch, calling for voluntary water conservation, also is in effect for Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Salem, Warren, and Sussex counties.

“We could be much more prepared,’’ said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, who noted data over the past year pointed to a serious water situation.

“The drought in North Jersey is a sign of things to come,’’ added Jaclyn Rhoads, deputy director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. “Due to improper planning by DEP, our residential and ecological communities will suffer far greater than if New Jersey released a water supply master plan years ago and implemented provisions to deal with high and low demand.’’

The public hearing begins at 10 a.m. in the Millburn Public Library Auditorium at 200 Glen Ave., Millburn.