Opinion: Anticipating the 2018 Statewide Water Supply Plan

Daniel J. Van Abs | February 7, 2017 | Opinion
The administration has made it clear that it doesn’t want to release the water plan. It’s time to look forward to a new administration and a new plan

Daniel J. Van Abs
Over the past 10 years, much has been written about New Jersey’s need for a new statewide water supply plan. After all, the existing plan was adopted in 1996 and hasn’t been updated since, despite a statutory mandate calling for updates at least every five years. Given that I was the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) project director and manager responsible for developing the 1996 plan, let me tell you it is very strange that it is still the most recent — I haven’t even been at NJDEP since 1999! The Water Supply Management Act, by the way, does not require a completely new plan every five years, just an update, a process that NJDEP used many times between the full plans of 1982 and 1996. We haven’t even seen updates since 1996.

In the years since, many of us in the water-resources field have advised NJDEP as it developed a new plan. This draft plan was last seen in mid-2012 by the Water Supply Advisory Council, which is mandated by statute to advise the NJDEP on the plan. It has not seen any newer drafts despite their existence, and nobody else has seen a draft since early 2011, six years ago.

What happened? The council’s 2011 minutes indicate that the statewide water supply plan was expected to be released after the new state strategic plan was released. The proposed final draft strategic growth plan was released in October 2011 (though never adopted), but the water supply plan was not released.

In June 2012 the council was informed that upper management had directed staff to incorporate additional information and that “if all goes well” they anticipated posting the plan later that summer and public meetings in the early fall. A new draft was provided to council members in August 2012, still with the expectation of public meetings in the early fall. The September minutes indicated that a meeting with the governor’s office had been held, resulting in questions that “could be answered relatively quickly.” By October, the plan was “still being reviewed by the governor’s office” according to council minutes; the same situation prevailed through 2012, and 2013, and 2014. In 2015, NJDEP informed the council that updates were being made to the draft plan based on newer water-demand data, but no new draft was provided then or in 2016. However, NJDEP did release a great deal of technical information that was used to develop the plan. One small step for planning! (Full disclosure: I am conducting technical research for NJDEP that was intended to become an update to the plan that wasn’t proposed.)

Meanwhile, responses through spokespersons of the NJDEP and the governor’s office have indicated that the statewide water supply plan was not being released for a variety of reasons. Some were clearly legitimate, such as the need for the state to focus on Hurricane Sandy responses. Some were the result of the long delay itself, such as the desire to update an aging draft with new data. But some seemed spurious, an effort to indicate that work was still needed by NJDEP when the council minutes clearly indicated that the plan was in the governor’s office. During all this time, the staff and managers who reported to the council clearly were struggling to present the situation in a positive light. I know these people well, and they are consummate professionals caught in a difficult situation.

What can we take from all of this? I’m going to make two suggestions. The first reflects on the administration’s priorities. When this administration came into office, it looked at the draft State Development and Redevelopment Plan and pronounced it fundamentally flawed, overly complex, and so on. I was present at a large event where Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno declared the administration’s intent to move in a different direction. The result was a draft state strategic plan, a thin document that was seen by many as more of a “plan to have a plan” than something that would really drive strategy, and near cessation of work by the State Planning Commission. We were told at several points that the water supply plan would need to follow the State Strategic Plan (which was to be revised to incorporate lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy). At this point, neither plan has been released — does this indicate that we haven’t figured out what we learned from Sandy? Perhaps so, but my assumption is that the administration is not fond of plans, and prefers to make ad hoc decisions rather than being bound by an overarching plan, even if that plan is their own creation. My corollary assumption is that neither plan will ever be released by this administration.

As for the second, let me finally suggest to my colleagues in the water-supply field that we stop asking for the draft statewide water supply plan to be released. We are in the final year of this administration, so anything proposed now, even if adopted, will barely have the (virtual) ink dry by the time a new administration is elected and will want its own imprint on state policy. In addition, I have no confidence that the current draft plan is better than the 2012 draft that the Water Supply Advisory Council reviewed, which the council at that time clearly did not feel was strong enough. History tends to show that plans are delayed because they are being compromised (dare I say, watered down?), not because they are being improved.

In short, we should stop calling for the release of the plan. We would be deluded in thinking it isn’t diluted, a pale imitation of a robust plan. I’m looking forward, instead, to when we can make water supply planning great again. Here’s to 2018!