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The Star-Ledger Newark, NJ

Sunday, March 10, 2002


Lack of rainfall is just one reason the water is being sapped from Jersey - From development to pipelines, there's no shortage of problems

Like a great Rube Goldberg device, New Jersey's water supply system is a giant, almost absurdly complex system of reservoirs, rivers, aquifers and interconnecting pipelines.

On any given day, the system is capable of spurting out 1.75 billion gallons of water, satisfying the 1 billion gallons needed to slake the state's ever-growing daily thirst.

With 6,450 miles of rivers, 24,000 acres of public lakes, 900,000 acres of freshwater and tidal wetlands, 120 miles of ocean coastline, and 420 miles of marshy coastline, the state is awash in water.

Yet New Jersey is in the midst of what may turn out to be a record drought.

If dry conditions persist and people do not conserve water, the state will run out by July 1, according to Dennis Hart, who was named state drought coordinator last week. "I'm talking about a situation that would be severely adverse to fire protection and public health," Hart said.

While the reason for the drought has focused on rainfall - New Jersey has gotten about 8 to 10 inches less than its normal 44 inches this year -many states manage on less. Many at the state Department of Environmental Protection in Trenton worry the problem goes beyond the weather.

Some of the problems being examined by state water authorities include:

The way water authorities calculate supply and demand may be inaccurate, overstating supply and underestimating population.

Because of the cost, the capacity of the state's water supply system has not been expanded to meet population increases. Instead, the state relies on rationing in times of drought, according to state planning documents.

Lots of water is wasted. Water from flushed toilets and a leaky infrastructure is never recovered.

No one is sure what the impact of extensive development has been on the state's gravity-fed system of reservoirs conceived and designed decades ago when watershed areas were pristine and unpopulated.

In Colorado, a population of 4.3 million - about half New Jersey's - lives off 17 inches of rain a year in a semi-arid climate. Water supply authorities capture mountain snowpack and dam it, accessing it year-round.

"We're actually in the midst of a moderate drought ourselves," said Jeff Brislawn, who chairs Colorado's drought task force, formed after a severe dry season in 1981. "We have below average snowpack in all the basins statewide, which is somewhat unusual."

Since 1996, the bible for New Jersey's state water authorities has been the Statewide Water Supply Plan, a master plan written by scientists and engineers from the state environmental agency over a period of about 12 months. It followed a 1982 report that spurred the construction of reservoirs and pipelines the state relies on to this day.

New Jersey's water supply, according to the document, was not built to be plentiful in emergency circumstances. According to the state plan, which still guides state officials' thinking, conservation was always part of the picture.

"New Jersey, as with other states, cannot afford to finance water supplies large enough to ensure water use may continue unabated during droughts," the report said.

Steve Nieswand, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in West Trenton, helped write the report when he worked at the state environmental agency. The thought of expanding the state's reservoir system was never seriously considered, he said.

While it might be great to drive 65 mph to the Shore in the middle of the tourist season, few people want to pay what it would cost to widen the Garden State Parkway, Nieswand said in explaining the thinking that went into the document. "How much are you willing to pay for it, both financially and environmentally? There's a limit."

Though some criticized the report from the beginning, others are now spotting flaws in light of the current drought.

All estimates and planning decisions in the document are based on the worst-case scenario being equal to conditions experienced during the New Jersey drought of 1964, with its record low rainfall. Weather authorities, such as David Robinson, the state climatologist, believe the present drought is looking to be worse.

The state planning report acknowledged this inherent weakness: "Insufficient long-term precipitation records exist to prove that the 1960s drought is the worst we can expect in the future. Thus there is an unknown risk level. . . . The ability of the state's water supplies to withstand a drought significantly worse than the 1960s has not been investigated."

The report concedes that its assessment of the available supply of water on a given day, known as "safe yield," could be better, based as it is on average rainfall patterns. It also relied on inaccurate population predictions that said the state population would not reach 8.25 million until 2010. The state's population at present, according to 2000 U.S. Census figures, is 8.4 million.

Using these figures, the authors of the report concluded that water supplies would remain sufficient through 2040. As a result, several capacity-enhancing projects, such as reservoir expansion projects in the Newark watershed and in Pennsylvania, were shelved.

"It was a judgment call, and the judgment call was wrong," said Ella Filippone, executive director of the Passaic River Coalition and a longtime critic of the state plan.

The state environmental agency, at the behest of its new commissioner, Bradley Campbell, has embarked on rewriting the 1996 study, focusing first on improving drought procedures and assessments, said Filippone, who sits on the agency's water supply advisory council.

Hart, the agency's drought coordinator, said the state would be focusing on ways to recover wastewater, water that is treated at sewage plants and discharged into the ocean. Though some water companies already do this, officials will be investigating ways to do this on a massive scale. Millions of gallons of water, if properly tested and treated, could be safely reused, he said.

Another category of wasted water, known as "unallocated water" is lost through the leaky pipes characteristic of some of the state's increasingly creaky waterworks infrastructure. In some cases, the figure could be as high as 25 percent of all water flowing through a system, according to the state report.

Some believe that the report and all forms of state water management planning have not adequately accounted for the massive development of former farmland and forested tracts statewide.

Last week, the New Jersey Sierra Club released an analysis charging that overdevelopment has robbed the state's reservoirs and groundwater supplies of hundreds of billions of gallons a year.

Such huge losses, calculated to be some 300 billion gallons, according to Jeff Tittel, the environmental group's director, are caused by paving over the natural landscape. "Sprawl and overdevelopment are robbing New Jersey of its precious groundwater," he said. "With over 40 percent of New Jersey developed, we are creating a macadam desert."

When forested land is developed, paved surfaces and rooftops create large volumes of storm water runoff, Tittel said. Such runoff does not recharge groundwater supplies or replenish reservoirs but flows out to sea.

There are research efforts under way by state and federal scientists to assess the impact of development, including the effects of catch basins in new developments.

As bad as things are, some utility officials have noted that sound long-term planning, which resulted in 1980s-era improvements in the state's ability to supply and deliver water, has lessened the impact of what could have been an even more critical water shortage.

"This drought is worse than '64. Fortunately we built more facilities and we have more water than we did in '64, but the drought is worse," said Phil White, a spokesman for the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission, a public water utility serving northern New Jersey.

Five new reservoirs were created in New Jersey after the mid-'60s drought, including the state's largest, Round Valley, a 55 billion-gallon impoundment that opened in 1966. The last reservoir project in the state was the 4.7 billion-gallon Manasquan Reservoir in Monmouth County in 1990.

One of the more crucial water supply improvements was the Wanaque South Project in the late 1980s following a severe drought in 1980 and 1981. Wanaque South, a joint venture of North Jersey District and the private United Water Co., included a new reservoir, the 7 billion-gallon Monksville in Passaic County, and new and upgraded pumping stations along the Pompton and Ramapo rivers. It increased the so-called "safe yield" of the Wanaque Reservoir water supply system by 79 million gallons a day. "Safe yield" is a term hydrologists use to describe the amount of water a system can deliver on a daily basis.

White said that without the Wanaque South project, the Wanaque water supply system would be dry by now under current drought conditions.

"We wouldn't have any water at all," he said. "We'd be minus if it weren't for that Wanaque South project."

Maureen Duffy, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey-American Water Co., which supplies about a million residents throughout New Jersey, said diverting water from the underused Manasquan Reservoir has meant that two other reservoirs have remained at comfortable levels despite the drought.

"Planning has put us in okay shape," Duffy said.



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