|The Star-Ledger Newark, NJ
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
RUDY LARINI AND KITTA MacPHERSON
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.