Even with the rain we had earlier this week, New Jersey still faces drought conditions as we head into fall with reservoirs and groundwater levels well below normal. With record temperatures and a drought watch recently issued by the DEP for five counties, the environment and public health are at risk.
There is not enough water in the northern part of the state during dry periods, especially in the five counties impacted by the recent drought advisory. At many of our major water supply intakes, the water is either too low or too dirty to take in during drought conditions.
Sprawl and overdevelopment have had tremendous impacts on our water quality and quantity. Too much impervious cover prohibits water from soaking into the ground to recharge streams and aquifers. Instead, it turns into stormwater, causing flooding and water quality problems. Because of overdevelopment, the Ramapo River hits its 10 year drought level every other year.
Because of this asphalt desert we are creating, New Jersey might be the first state in the Northeast to run out of water. We've put a system out of balance, where we enter into cycles of floods and droughts. Unless we do something, the problem will only escalate.
Yet our leaders have done little to deal with the impacts of drought. There's been a drought of action and a deficit of planning. The Christie Administration and Legislature are implementing dangerous Executive Orders and dismantling key environmental programs through budget cuts and bad bills, making a serious water problem even worse.
Instead of strengthening the rules that protect our water supply, we see attempts at weakening them, such as proposals by the sewage authority to allow for more pollutants in our waterways. Funding for the Highlands, which provides drinking water for 5.4 million people, has been cut drastically — from $12 million to $4.4 million in 2011. In addition, the Board of Public Utilities recently approved PSE&G's expansion of the proposed power lines through the Highlands, which will further contribute to water pollution.
There are several steps New Jersey should take to improve its water supply and quality. First, it is imperative that we fix the drought warning system and the rules dealing with droughts. For example, under a drought emergency, we can order people to boil water but the DEP does not have the authority to require polluters to clean up their discharges. Sewer plants, by doing certain producers, can significantly reduce nitrate pollution.
Water conservation rules, such as odd and even lawn watering, should go into effect much sooner in drought conditions. Rain sensors should be required on irrigation equipment and sprinklers all of the time, not just when there is a drought.
We must prioritize water allocation so we are not giving water to sprawl development at the expense of our cities. During a drought, we must mandate that water would go to a hospital before a golf course.
More streams need to be designated as Category One to increase protections and the DEP must set ecological flow goals to protect stream flow. We must stop the weakening of stormwater and sewer rules. Overdevelopment above our critical supply reservoirs must be limited. Impervious cover in areas with depleted groundwater and in our water supply intakes should also be restricted. Our Water Supply Master Plan must be updated; it was last completed in 1995 with 1986 data. It is woefully out of date and inadequate, yet it still guides decisions.
It is essential that we fix leaky infrastructure and upgrade our sewer plants. In many of our cities, aging infrastructure leaks out 25 to 30 percent of its water due to old pipes that are over a century old. New Jersey needs to establish statewide fertilizer and soil compaction regulations and clean up polluted waterways through water quality based effluent limits.
Having clean and abundant water is necessary for our economy, as our three largest industries — pharmaceutical/petrochemical, food processing, and tourism — rely on it. In New Jersey, water makes everything from Tylenol to Goya beans, Budweiser to M&Ms.
With water quality at risk throughout the state, now is the time to make decisions to protect the environment and public health. To move forward, New Jersey must not only protect the environment, but also must supply clean and abundant water to promote economic growth.
Jeff Tittel is the Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club