Most of New Jersey Under Drought Watch

By Brenda Flanagan

“Where we’re standing, we’d definitely be under water,” said Billie Gallo.

But we’re not. The Oradell Reservoir’s running low, at only 44 percent of capacity, according to Suez Water Company spokesperson Gallo. Under normal circumstances, she said, “It would be over our heads. Right about now it would be about eight feet.”

So what’s going on?

“We have had a couple of exceptionally dry months,” Gallo said.

How dry? Rainfall’s off from 15 to 50 percent over the past three months, in north and central New Jersey. The U.S. Monitor declared drought in Bergen County is “severe” and “moderate” in the rest of northern New Jersey. The state DEP earlier this month expanded a drought watch to include all but three southern New Jersey counties.

“Not only has less water fallen into the rain bucket, but that’s affected stream flow, ground water levels and then subsequently reservoir levels,” said State Climatologist David Robinson.

New Jersey’s state climatologist says the state hasn’t seen stream and reservoir levels drop like this since the early 2000s and is on the cusp of a serious drought. The DEP will convene a special hearing to consider raising the drought alert level from watch to warning.

“A warning gives them the opportunity to have a little bit more authority over the distribution of water supplies around the state between different purveyors. They could also institute watering restrictions,” Robinson said.

Robinson says the drought’s also been rough on agriculture in the Garden State, except for grape vines.

“They’ll develop a taproot that’ll grow 10 to 20 feet into the earth to find a reliable water source, so even though it’s been a drought, the vineyards have just been doing just fantastic,” said Willow Creek Farm and Winery Farm Director Kevin Celli.

Suez Water Company’s Oradell — and its two companion reservoirs — provide drinking water for 800,000 people. Because it’s October and people aren’t filling swimming pools or watering lawns, Gallo said, “Currently we have enough water to serve all of our customers.”

But Suez has asked them to voluntarily conserve water, run washing machines and dishwashers only when they’re full, for example. Morris County also asked residents to help.

“Right now we’re in the middle of October. Your lawn’s not going to be getting any greener. It’s getting ready to go dormant for the season and the idea that you have your sprinklers going on automatic or you’re doing it yourself right now, it’s a real waste of water,” said Morris County Spokesperson Larry Ragonese.

Normally the water level is well over my head in Oradell. The DEP hearing on the drought problem is scheduled for Thursday in Millburn.