NJDEP Considers Issuing Drought Warning

UPDATE: New Jersey has issued a drought warning in 14 counties.

By Michael Hill

Eighteen Jersey counties are under a drought watch, all but the bottom of the state asked to voluntarily restrict use. Thanks to reservoirs at or below 50 percent, a lack of measurable rainfall and temperatures that State Climatologist David Robinson described as “cooking”.

“We have the second warmest winter and the second warmest summer. So, we’ve really been on a thermal roll with warm temperatures and that only exacerbates the problem and dries things out more quickly,” Robinson said.

Conditions ripe enough to up the drought watch to a drought warning? Dan Kennedy is the DEP’s assistant commissioner for water resource management.

“We believe the conditions right now are in place to call for a drought warning,” Kennedy said.

Conditions other DEP research scientists made clear with graphs and charts documenting New Jersey’s water shortage severity — at a hearing state law requires before the DEP commissioner can issue a drought warning. Under a warning, no mandatory restrictions but the state would transfer water from one region or system to one with a sizable deficit. The goal: stretching supplies until it rains more normally.

Climatologist Robinson says New Jersey can pull out of a drought any time unlike California. So, what’s the forecast for rain?

“Indecisive. Indecisive. No bad news. They don’t see a pattern of excessive dryness in the next two weeks, but they don’t see a pattern that’s going to promote a coastal storm coming in and giving us a good soaking in the next two weeks,” Robinson said.

Several groups told the DEP a drought warning declaration was overdue and for several reasons that has compounded the water shortage.

“We have a quarter storage per capita that New York City has. So we don’t have enough backup so even when we get the rain at certain times, we don’t have enough places to store that rain for the downfalls. So every year we are playing Russian roulette with our drinking water,” said NJ Sierra Club Executive Director Jeff Tittel.

Another speaker urged DEP to do a better job of educating the public.

“Yesterday it was 85 degrees. People are watering their lawns still. Why are we watering our lawns when we have drought conditions?” asked Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions Executive Director Jennifer Coffey.

New Jersey American Water said it opposes DEP moving water from one part of the state to another. Why?

“Customers who have historically paid for adequate water supply and water capacity infrastructure through their rates should not subsidize customers who have not been asked to pay for adequate capacity over the years,” said New Jersey American Water Senior Director of Operation Bob Schaefer.

Tom Ryan of Maywood said for a dozen years he’s urged New Jersey to tap into the Great Lakes’ 100,000 square miles of fresh water.

“Why aren’t we tapping in to it? That’s a rhetorical question. It’s only 285 miles from here to the southern tip of Lake Ontario,” Ryan said.

“Certainly something we could consider moving forward,” Kennedy said.

After satisfying the requirement to hold the hearing before declaring a drought warning, the question for DEP now is how soon after such a hearing does it typically take action.

“We are close to calling this decision,” Kennedy said.

A decision that could be imminent and could depend on the forecast for rain.