Renewed Demand for State Water Supply Plan, But DEP Won’t Say When

Member of expert panel says lack of a blueprint leaves New Jersey vulnerable to drought and unable to manage water assets and infrastructure

oradell reservoir drought
An expert panel that advises the state on water supply issues has made its latest call to the Christie administration to publish an updated version of a statewide plan on the demand for water.

The Water Supply Advisory Council urged the Department of Environmental Protection to release the latest version of the Statewide Water Supply Plan, a blueprint that has not been publicly updated since 1996 despite a legal requirement to do so every five years.

In a letter to DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, council chairman Norman Nelson said the ongoing absence of the blueprint means that the state does not have plans to manage drought, manage water assets, or plan for critical infrastructure.

“An updated water supply plan is dearly needed in the state of New Jersey; that is, in place, followed and routinely updated,” Nelson wrote in a letter dated December 16 but released by the DEP on Wednesday.

This is the second time the WSAC, which consists of water company executives, water users, academics, and nonprofit representatives, has written to the Christie administration asking it to release an updated report. In April 2015, Nelson said the panel hadn’t seen the report for two years, during which time its membership had changed as a result of which some new members had never seen a copy. But a letter at that time did not produce the desired results.

In response to the new call on December 16, the DEP said it would provide a confidential copy of the updated report to the WSAC “as soon as it is ready for your review” and prior to its public release. But, as previously, the department did not say when the document would be published.

Daniel Kennedy, the DEP’s assistant commissioner for Water Resource Management, took issue with Nelson’s argument that the lack of a plan is preventing water supply planning and best-management practices. “DEP’s authority for water supply planning is not limited to the public law that created the requirement for a statewide water supply plan,” Kennedy wrote to Nelson on Wednesday. “Planning for New Jersey’s water supply is also built into all of the governing federal and state statutes.”

Kennedy said the WSAC has been kept up to date on the DEP’s water policy on such matters as drought and critical infrastructure management and that the panel has had the opportunity to advise the DEP on those issues. “This has been made very clear to WSAC at several of your meetings,” he said.

The administration of Gov. Chris Christie has come under fire from water experts, environmentalists, and nonprofits for its continued failure to publish an updated plan. Critics have speculated that it is being withheld from public view because it could have negative implications for development.

A new version of the plan, compiled by DEP officials and consultants, was submitted to the governor’s office in 2012 but has not been published.

In another new attempt to persuade the administration to publish the plan, the Senate’s Environment and Energy Committee this week approved a resolution urging the DEP to release an updated document, and calling on the governor to advocate for public water conservation.

The bipartisan resolution, cosponsored by Sens. Christopher Bateman (R-Somerset) and Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), said the state is unable to properly plan for water needs unless there is a statewide framework, and is more vulnerable to droughts such as that which prompted official drought warnings in many counties during the summer and fall of 2016.

“Without an updated plan, the State faces an increased risk of drought because water resources are not being managed in accordance with an overarching plan that accounts for how much water is being used and how much water is being replenished,” the resolution said.

Committee chairman Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) said the panel was renewing its efforts to get the plan published even though the failure of previous attempts would suggest that the chances of success this time were “slim to none.”

“We’re supposed to be doing the responsible thing by our citizens,” Smith said in an interview. “You have to poke the bear in the eye with a stick.”

Smith, a longtime advocate for an updated blueprint, said government has a responsibility to plan for the adequate supply and quality of water. “We are not addressing the capital needs of our water-supply infrastructure. We’re not providing ways of getting water to places where it’s in shortage during droughts. We’re not setting up systems where we can conserve water, and as a result, we really put 9 million people in the state at risk,” he said.

Bob Kecskes, who headed the DEP’s water-supply planning division for 25 years until he retired in 2011, said that without a plan, the state is vulnerable to over-allocation of water-supply permits, straining aquatic natural resources, and impairing water quality.

Another consequence of a lack of planning is saltwater intrusion that occurs in some coastal areas if too much water is withdrawn from aquifers to supply new development, Kecskes told a Senate committee in 2015.