Op-Ed: The Critical Need for New Jersey’s Water Supply Plan

Tim Dillingham, Jennifer Coffey | February 27, 2017 | Opinion
With 14 counties under drought warning, the governor must release the Water Supply Plan — whether it's ready or not

Jennifer Coffey and Tim Dillingham
With the beginning of the new calendar year, New Jersey has entered its third consecutive year of drought, with 14 counties remaining under an official drought-warning status. While winter rains and snow are helping drinking-water reservoirs refill, the drought warning remains. In six weeks, spring will bring blooming flowers, growing lawns, warmer temperatures, and increasing demands for water. Increasing demands for clean water during a time of drought in the most densely populated state in the nation is why, despite what one prominent scientist has recently written, we desperately need an updated Water Supply Plan for the Garden State.

Gov. Chris Christie’s failure to release an update to the State Water Supply Plan is threatening New Jersey’s supply of clean, fresh drinking water. On Earth Day 2015, in April, the New Jersey Senate Legislative Oversight Committee held a hearing at which experts testified on the need for an updated Water Supply Plan. Our current plan is 21 years old and 16 years overdue for an update. Committees in both houses of the New Jersey Legislature have passed resolutions directing the governor to release the draft plan immediately, yet amidst a drought warning, there is still no sign of the plan.

The Water Supply Plan works as an accounting checkbook for New Jersey’s water supplies. The goal is to ensure that we have enough clean water for residents, businesses, power production, farming, and the environment for this and future generations. The master plan includes recommendations for balancing the diverse demands on the water supply with the amount of water that replenishes the sources of that water — precipitation that feeds our shared streams, rivers, and underground water sources known as aquifers.

New Jersey’s water woes are compounded by the fact that business and residents are also using more water than ever, according to estimates by the United States Geological Survey. Increases in New Jersey’s population over the past 10 years are one of the reasons for this increased use.

According to research by the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC), more water is being taken out than is being replenished in one of our major aquifers, the Kirkwood-Cohansey (KC) in South Jersey. The KC aquifer supplies drinking water to approximately 3 million of New Jersey’s 9 million residents. ANJEC’s estimates show that if all the permits for water use granted by the New Jersey DEP were used to their fullest extent, portions of the KC aquifer would violate safe levels of use by more than 1,000 percent.

The Highlands, in northern New Jersey, provides drinking water to 5.4 million people. Yet the Highlands Council has calculated that in 58 percent of the region, more water is withdrawn than is replenished, and that unless these deficits are addressed, the Highlands will not be able to supply nearly the volume that people, businesses, and manufacturers depend upon.

The lack of a Water Supply Plan to ensure clean and plentiful water in the Garden State puts public health and the environment at risk. New Jersey residents, businesses, and farmers have benefitted from living in a traditionally water-rich state. Our state’s economy is intimately linked to water supply. Three of the Garden State’s top economic-generating industries, agriculture, tourism, and pharmaceutical research and manufacturing, are dependent on a clean and plentiful supply of water.

The warnings of California’s water scarcity should be ringing loudly in the ears of New Jersey officials. With our water supply in crisis, and a Water Supply Plan that is severely out of date, now is the time that citizens, scientists, policymakers, nonprofit advocates for clean water, businesses, and farmers should demand a robust public evaluation of the Water Supply Plan as it stands now — updated, as the Christie administration has claimed, or not. The plan is an important tool in responsibly addressing pressing water-supply questions — it cannot remain hidden from the public, unexamined and ineffectual.

The public needs to demand transparency from our current governor and all of the candidates running for governor of New Jersey this November. The state of our waters should not become a hidden crisis, like Flint, MI, because the information is withheld from the public. Given what we know about the issues facing our waters, public debate as to how protect and manage them should be a major issue for any politician seeking office. Releasing whatever plan the Christie administration is holding behind closed doors — even if it is no plan at all, or outdated — is the starting point for the public to examine the possible growing threats to a safe and abundant supply of water. If there has been a failure to plan, the public should know. If the planning has been inadequate in the face of the threats, the public should know.

It has been suggested that clean-water advocates should just wait for the next governor to develop a new plan. That is more delay, rewards the intransigence and failures to update the plan of several administrations, and provides no guarantees of a strong, protective set of measures. Most importantly, it strips New Jersey’s public of its ability to engage its government in a debate about the best policies protecting our communities’ water.

As we continue to call for action on this important Water Supply Plan and hope for rains to replenish our drinking-water supplies, residents can learn more about New Jersey’s water and how to conserve it at SaveH2ONJ.com, njwatersavers.rutgers.edu, and sjwatersavers.org.

This piece was written with assistance from and endorsement of the following nonprofit leaders working together to protect and restore New Jersey’s water supplies: Ed Potosnak, executive director of New Jersey LCV Education Fund; Jaclyn Rhoads, Ph.D., assistant executive director; and Julia Somers, executive director of New Jersey Highlands Coalition.