Wednesday, January 13, 2016

What’s Up with Water in New Jersey?

                People have a complex relationship with water. We swim in it and recreate on it, fish from it and withdraw huge amounts from rivers and coastal waters for industrial use and drinking water. At the same time, we discharge millions of gallons of wastewater right back into those waterways and waterbodies. Continued population and development pressures, coupled with the present and future impacts of climate change, threaten the quality and abundance of this most essential resource. Unfortunately, New Jersey has done a poor job in planning and regulating these issues. As a result, NJ is losing hard won progress and is actively backsliding on water quality protections.

This past year was one of the driest on record for New Jersey, with nearly one-fifth (located mostly in Central and Northeastern) of the state classified in a moderate drought and nearly 90 percent of the state listed as abnormally dry.[1] These low water levels stress ecosystems and drinking water supplies. This ‘trend’ extends back several years, and, with the ever more apparent effects of a warming climate, foreshadows a new normal. As our own NJDEP has stated, “[d]espite a trend toward more precipitation, the Northeast is seeing longer periods without rainfall and longer growing seasons. The result is a drier growing season, especially during the summer months, when temperatures and evapotranspiration are highest. This summer’s drying trend is exacerbated by reduced recharge from spring snowmelt. New Jersey has experienced one severe water-supply drought (2001-2002) and three minor ones (2005, 2006 and 2010) in the last decade.”[2] Even now, the NJDEP Drought Information website shows “a Drought Watch remains in place in the Northeast, Central, and Coastal North Water Supply Regions. . .  Substantial rainfall will be needed over the coming months to restore water supply reserves in preparation for the high-demand season that beings in May.”[3] Yet, NJDEP has neglected the critical tasks of inventorying and managing this precious resource, as the current Water Supply Master Plan (WSMP) is 20 years old and 15 years overdue, despite widespread protest and opposition from elected officials and environmental organizations.[4]

The WSMP inventories the amounts of surface and underground drinking water in the State and compares it to the amounts withdrawn for residents, business, power production, and farming in order to achieve a balance between development, water withdrawals, and environmental health. Overdevelopment and an expanding population creates more impervious surface, which inhibits rainwater from percolating into the ground to recharge aquifers and increases water withdrawals, putting our groundwater resources at risk.[5] Without a master plan in place, New Jersey could face severe water shortages into the future.

Furthermore, building in low lying areas, much of which acts as a buffer to absorb run off and storm surge, should be discouraged due to climate change impacts of sea level rise, extended dry periods (which dry out soil and decrease its ability to absorb rain) followed by heavy rain events, and increased frequency of storm events.[6] Yet, in the past year, New Jersey has amended two essential sets of regulations protecting critical coastal and riparian areas that buffer and protect communities from flood waters and absorb nutrients and pollutants before they reach waterbodies. NJDEP consolidated a patchwork of coastal development regulations and ‘streamlined’ it into what is known as the Coastal Zone Management Rules (CZMR). These changes enable even more development in vulnerable coastal areas through a myriad of measures, including easing the process for getting waterfront building permits and enabling larger upland development in the coastal zone.[7] The Flood Hazard Area Control Act (FHACA) establishes buffer distances for streams and rivers, and addresses how we develop in these riparian and coastal areas. These regulations have also been ‘streamlined, which in effect, removes protective waterway designations, and allows increased and unmonitored development in essential riparian, coastal, and wetland habitat.[8]

NJDEP is also in the process of ‘updating’ its Water Quality Management Planning regulations (WQMP).[9] These rules are required for New Jersey to meet its obligations under the Federal Clean Water Act, and determine, among other things, the cumulative water resource impacts of future development, how to manage and restore existing water quality impairments, and how NJ expects to maintain existing water quality.  However, simply put, NJDEP’s proposed updates to the WQMP are damaging to water quality protection, and allow for increased development and associated water quality impacts from sewers, wastewater treatment plants, and runoff in coastal areas.

Overall, New Jersey has a holistic and systemic problem. Development in coastal and riparian areas is continuing unabated, even as the public safety, economic, ecosystem, and water quality impacts of this type of development become clear (FHACA, and CZMR). New Jersey continues to use vast amounts of surface and ground water for drinking, industry, and agriculture, even while drought continues to impact our region (WSMP). New Jersey is also failing to safeguard the water quality gains made in the past, and is failing to properly plan for the future impacts of development on these gains (WQMP).

Stream and groundwater withdrawals, wastewater and industrial discharges, and development in coastal and riparian habitat are continuing unrestricted. Poor integration among these regulations and a lack of planning for future population increases and development will stress ecosystems, put human health at risk, and is a dangerous and unsustainable path into an uncertain climate future.

New Jersey’s water protection laws and planning are heading in the wrong direction. Clean water for drinking, swimming, fishing, and agriculture is invaluable.  Clean Ocean Action will continue to fight for clean water, and encourages the public to engage with us to protect this most basic and essential resource. Follow our social media for important updates and action alerts, call or email your elected officials and speak up for water quality and habitat protections, and align your lifestyle and consumption patterns with low impact and environmentally friendly values.

[2] Climate Change in New Jersey: Temperature, Precipitation, Extreme Events and Sea Level, NJDEP, available at
[5] According to preliminary 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 in South Jersey. That aquifer, which runs beneath southern Monmouth County and all of Ocean County, supplies drinking water to approximately 3 million of New Jersey’s 9 million residents. 

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