MICHELE S. BYERS / NJ CONSERVATION FOUNDATION – New Jersey’s almost 9 million residents make this state we’re in denser than India or Japan! And the population is projected to grow to 10.2 to 10.4 million by 2040. Will we have enough water for our residents, farmers, businesses, industries – and the environment – now and in the future?
That question is front and center following the release of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s draft 2017-2022 update of the New Jersey Statewide Water Supply Plan – the first update in 21 years.
According to the plan, “Generally, New Jersey has sufficient water available to meet needs into the foreseeable future” – provided the state effectively increases water efficiency through conservation and reuse, promotes public awareness, addresses deteriorating infrastructure and maintenance issues, and pursues key water supply projects.
These are big challenges!
But the plan only looks ahead eight years. This short horizon undermines meaningful planning and minimizes the magnitude of the challenges. It’s clear that these water supply challenges will not be easy to solve.
Annual water use in New Jersey peaked during 1990-2015, and per person potable water use decreased from about 155 gallons per day to 125 gallons per day during that time due to more efficient plumbing fixtures. But consumptive water use (where water is taken up by plants or products or evaporated, so that it is no longer available) continues to rise.
The plan found that the greatest stresses to water supply include water lost to evaporation through outdoor water use and out-of-basin wastewater transfers. It found that some areas of New Jersey already use tens of millions of gallons more water per day than the capacity of their watersheds, and that other parts of the state will likely experience similar deficits in the near future.
The Water Supply Plan identifies four of the state’s 20 “Watershed Management Areas” (WMAs) as stressed, with 11 more that would become stressed if all authorized water withdrawal permits were fully utilized.
For example, water demand in much of Salem and Cumberland counties outstrips local supply by 70 million gallons a day. In Atlantic County, the deficit is 25 million gallons daily. In the Upper Passaic River Watershed Management Area, encompassing parts of Morris, Sussex and Essex counties, the deficit could grow from the current 2 million gallons per day to 5 million daily by 2020. The Arthur Kill WMA is estimated to double its deficit by 2020. And “masked” within larger watershed areas are smaller watersheds – for example, in the Highlands – that are also in deficit as documented by the Highlands Regional Master Plan.
When aquifers and streams in watersheds become stressed, the environment pays the price. Streams and wetlands dry up, harming both aquatic and non-aquatic wildlife and entire ecosystems.
According to the report, total peak water demands are currently estimated at about 1.3 billion gallons of water per day, leaving a water supply surplus of 212 million gallons. But a surplus in Sussex County doesn’t help Cape May. Water supplies are not often readily transportable to places with water deficits.
And the surplus will quickly dwindle. By 2020, demand for potable water will rise by an additional 120 million gallons a day, cutting the surplus by more than half. That’s only three years from now!
The plan raises some critical questions:
- Will New Jersey have enough water for 10.2 to 10.4 million people?
- Will we learn to conserve our water supplies to ensure sufficient water during droughts? Outdoor use of potable water supplies is of particular concern.
- How will the state address the impacts of climate change, which may include hotter summers with greater water demands?
- What about coastal sea level rise, which will increase the potential for saltwater intrusion into southern Jersey’s water supply aquifers?
- Will population growth occur where water is currently available, or will it occur in areas that would require new infrastructure projects that could take years to develop?
- How will New Jersey pay for the billions of dollars in infrastructure investments needed?
- Will we protect water quality, and take action to reduce pollution from stormwater and runoff?
The report provides a data-rich portrait of these serious water supply challenges, but it falls short on solutions.
New Jersey sorely needs a comprehensive set of action plans on water – policy, planning, legislative, regulatory, infrastructure repair, construction and funding – to ensure an adequate long-term water supply for our state’s growing population – while protecting our natural ecosystems that depend on water.
The Department of Environmental Protection is accepting public comments on the draft plan at three public meetings in July: Tuesday, July 11, at 1 p.m., NJ Department of Environmental Protection, 401 E. State St., Trenton, NJ, 08625; Wednesday, July 12, at 3 p.m., Millburn Public Library, 200 Glen Ave., Millburn, NJ, 07041; and Thursday, July 13, at 1 p.m., Stockton University Campus Center, Board of Trustees Room, 101 Vera King Farris Drive, Galloway, NJ, 08205.
In addition, the Department of Environmental Protection will accept written comments until the close of business on Wednesday, July 19. Electronic comments may be emailed to email@example.com, with “Draft Water Supply Plan Comments” in the subject line.
Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.