It was billed as a hearing on declaring a drought warning for much of New Jersey, but for many of those who showed up it was an opportunity to plead with officials to step up planning to deal with water issues confronting the state.
“The Water Supply Master Plan. The Water Supply Master Plan. The Water Supply Master Plan,’’ said Bill Kibler, policy director of the Raritan Headwaters Association, repeating the theme often mentioned during the hearing held by the state Department of Environmental Protection. “Have you got the message today?’’
The failure of the Christie administration to update the 20-year-old state water plan is a source of continuing frustration for many conservation groups, one that has taken on added significance as large parts of New Jersey are on the cusp of the first drought warning since 2001.
The declaration is imminent, just days away, according to Dan Kennedy, an assistant DEP commissioner, but a more dire drought emergency is weeks, maybe months from being announced. If so, it could lead to mandatory water-use restrictions for residents and businesses.
Eighteen New Jersey counties already are under a drought watch, an event in which voluntary conservation steps are recommended. If a drought warning is issued, it would give the DEP more authority to transfer water between areas suffering from severe deficits as well; develop alternative sources of drinking water; and complete interconnections between water purveyors.
Most of those who showed up for the hearing urged the department to waste no time in declaring the warning, with some chastising it for not doing so already. Some key reservoirs are hovering around 50 percent of normal and rainfall forecasts are not very promising.
Others suggested stepped-up water conservation efforts and more long-term planning to deal with water shortages, urging the administration and Legislature to renew a focus on investing in the state’s aging water infrastructure. At least 20 percent of the treated drinking water leaks from pipes before ever getting to a home or business.
“It’s way too late,’’ said Kathleen Foley, a resident of Colts Neck, saying the state should have issued a drought warning already. “We’re in a severe drought.’’
After the hearing, Kennedy defended the department’s action. The state water supply plan is still in development, he said, and will be made public when it is completed. “New Jersey has all the tools it needs to deal with the state’s water resources in times like these,’’ he added.
Beyond water shortages, the state also is experiencing repeated cases of contamination of drinking water supplies by various pollutants, along with the long-recognized problem of lead leaching into drinking water from older fixtures and plumbing.
At the hearing, representatives from water companies also urged the state to make sure areas where customers have invested in upgrading supplies do not end up subsidizing areas where those investments have not been made.