Former DEP Drought Manager: Water Infrastructure Needs Updating

Despite the recent drenching rains, New Jersey is on the brink of drought. The U.S. Drought Monitor says nearly two-thirds of the state is abnormally dry. The Assembly Environment Committee’s approved a bill requiring water companies to come up with a plan to limit the damage. Meantime, New Jersey’s Water Supply Master Plan hasn’t been updated in nearly two decades. We recently spoke with the man who was drought manager for the state Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Jim McGreevey — Dennis Hart. Hart told NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams that his time as drought manager taught him how water is an integral part of everyone’s life.

“Water is so integral to our daily lives, and especially to New Jersey, the minute you impact someone’s use of water, you find out what’s important to people’s lives,” Hart said. “And unfortunately I discovered that watering lawns is probably the number one religion in New Jersey above any other religion. People really are dedicated to keeping their lawns nice and green with a lot of water and unfortunately when you start talking about water restrictions, the extraneous use of water like lawn watering and washing your cars and stuff, that gets restricted and people immediately begin to realize the dramatic situation that’s going to happen.”

Even if New Jersey receives a substantial amount of rainfall, Hart says that the state will still be on the brink of drought due to the state having so much pavement and roads. He says that a lot of the rainfall washes off the streets and doesn’t make it into groundwater or reservoirs.

Hart said that the state is not in a state of drought but that it is in a warning in several areas, mostly the north. According to Hart, many municipalities have residents that have their own private well and that the groundwater supply particularly in the northern part of the state gets depleted quickly.

There has been a push to update the Water Supply Master Plan, but that hasn’t been updated in about 20 years. Hart says that he doesn’t know why there is a holdup to update it.

“I don’t know what the holdup is and it’s a shame because it’s very important because even when the Water Supply Master Plan comes out, it’s just the beginning of the process,” said Hart. “It’s where we start the dialogue of we haven’t built a major water supply, reservoir or new water supply system in this state in decades.”

Hart said that unfortunately infrastructure around the state is old and that some cities still have pipelines made out of wood. Many water lines are breaking. Hart says while the water quality is good, a lot of systems leak more water than they’re actually delivering to residents, which is wasteful.

“Our infrastructure for water in this system is both old and complicated,” he said.

Hart said that there is resistance on improving infrastructure but that if infrastructure is improved, it will help other areas, including the economy.

“Unfortunately there is a resistance because our economy is not where it should be, but improving infrastructure will actually improve the economy,” Hart said. “We can put people to work rebuilding our infrastructure. Not only that, the amount of wasted resources in treating water that actually never makes it anywhere, you don’t get billed for it, that’s a vast waste of our resource. And in our economy, water is important for us, for our public health, for our environment, for our economy.”

According to Hart, having a good water supply is vital. He mentioned that having a good water supply is important to companies, including Anheuser-Busch in Newark.

“All those things we have to maintain to keep businesses here and to attract more business,” he said. “Investing in water infrastructure and transportation infrastructure, that just returns more money in the long run than it costs and particularly now the cost of money is so cheap. Now is when we should be doing it and the longer it takes for the Water Supply Master Plan to come out, the longer it takes to start that dialogue of how we’re going to move forward as a state.”