Environmental Professor: State’s New Water Supply Plan Short-Sighted

Finally a water master plan is in the works — 16 years late. It’s widely considered an essential tool that allows the state to plan for development, make allowance for droughts and avoid the environmental damage. To walk us through what the blueprint means, NJTV News Correspondent David Cruz is joined by water resource expert Rutgers Professor Danial Van Abs.

Cruz: Last time you were here you said you’d given up hope on the Christie administration putting out a water supply plan. So this week they put one out.

Van Abs: They did indeed.

Cruz: Impressed?

Van Abs: No.

Cruz: What’s lacking?

Van Abs: Several things are lacking. One is the plan only projects water demands out to 2020, which is three years from now, whereas the last plan projected water demands out to 2040, which is 23 years from now.

Cruz: Let me ask you before we get too far into this, what’s the plan for? What does it do? What is it about?

Van Abs: That’s a good question. Many people have everything that they want the plan to be but what it’s really about is making sure that we don’t run out of water during bad droughts. That’s really what it’s all about. What are our water supplies? What are the demands that we have? What are the demands that they project? And can we meet those demands during a bad drought?

Cruz: So this thing that came out this week is short-term? What else is wrong with it in your mind?

Van Abs: The other issue is that when you look through the plan, there’s almost nothing in the way of actual objectives. What do we want to accomplish? How much water conservation do we want? How are we going to deal with areas that are showing deficits in terms of water supply? It isn’t there.

Cruz: I saw, I guess it was last month, almost 80 percent of the state was either in a drought warning or a drought advisement or something.

Van Abs: Right. The state had drought warnings through much of northern New Jersey down into central New Jersey and then South Jersey was some concern but had not been officially declared for drought warning. And now the rains have come. And we’re in much better shape than we were back then.

Cruz: So when we’re in a drought warning, is it a question of just that there’s not enough rain or are we failing to capture it?

Van Abs: When we’re in a drought, it really is simply not enough rain coming down so we’re not filling the reservoirs as we normally would, we’re not filling our aquifers as we normally would. The flip side is, are we using too much? And so when things get really bad during a drought, then we try to knock down the demand as well.

Cruz: What kind of job are the stewards of our water systems doing? The people who maintain all these aquifers and so on?

Van Abs: I would have to say that the professionals are doing a really good job in terms of how we allocate water supplies, how we manage our water supplies, our reservoir systems, our aquifers. The question is really what do we need to do over the next 25, 30 years?

Cruz: And in your mind, what do you think we need to do that’s specifically missing in this plan?

Van Abs: One of the big issues that the plan as it does sit right now points out is that in a number of areas we’re overusing groundwater. And that will, during a bad drought, result in drying up our streams so that we just don’t have enough water or any water moving down those streams. So the question is, what are we going to do about that? How do we back off of those water demands so that we have a better balance?

Cruz: I also remember doing a story a couple years ago about how a lot of municipalities are losing up to 20 percent of their drinkable water because it’s leaking underground in 100-year-old infrastructure.

Van Abs: Twenty percent, 30 percent, 40 percent. There are some that are even reporting over 50 percent.

Cruz: That seems like a crisis to me.

Van Abs: It is a really bad situation. It means that we have not been maintaining our water supply systems the way we should be in too many cases and so that’s an area where we are, frankly the department is moving forward and starting to really push the municipalities to do a better job from that perspective.

Cruz: Does this plan address that?

Van Abs: It touches on it. But again it doesn’t say what our objectives should be. So it talks about it. It talks about what’s going on now and there’s some good things going on now. But what it does not say is therefore we need to achieve X.

Cruz: It seems to me the two things are the quality of our water and the amount of our water that we have. Where are we on those things?

Van Abs: In terms of the quality of the water, we have many situations in the state of New Jersey where the water quality of the raw supply, the original supply, has been going down because of development out into our watershed areas. And so that’s definitely a concern and something that we need to work on. In terms of supply, we have a fair amount of surface water supply. We’ve been really good about building reservoirs over the decades. But groundwater supply is definitely constrained in a number of parts of the state. And so that’s a concern.

Cruz: In your mind, really quickly, does this plan help or is it useless?

Van Abs: No, it isn’t useless. There was a lot of good technical work that went into this plan. So the basis of where we are and what our water supplies are is really well grounded in this plan. What’s missing is what’s next. What’s the action? What do we need to do? Who’s going to do it and by when?