CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Lower Township residents urged state officials at a public hearing Wednesday night to allow their community to pump more well water, despite concerns they might only worsen their problems in the long-run.

The meeting held in the Cape May County Administration Building by the Department of Environmental Protection addressed two separate applications to increase the amount of water that can be pumped annually from public wells in Lower and Middle townships.

The DEP’s Division of Water Supply and Geoscience puts limits on the amount of water that can be drawn from public wells to ensure a sustainable supply of drinking water, making sure the water pumped from underground aquifers is not more than can be naturally replenished.

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The Lower Township Municipal Utilities Authority seeks to increase its limit by 462 million gallons a year, while New Jersey American Water is asking to raise its annual limit in Middle Township by 150 million gallons.

An application to pump more in Middle aims to supply long-term water demand, while the Lower application is supposed to address current development and concerns with water quality.

More than 50 people attended the meeting and more than a dozen spoke.

“We desperately need this water to help our residents and especially our younger people who are drinking some of this,” said Lower Township Mayor Michael Beck to applause from part of the audience.

Water supply issues are serious concerns in Cape May County. The peninsula has been subject to salt water infiltrating freshwater aquifers for decades, and many wells in the southern part of the county have already been capped because of salt water seeping in. Fresh water naturally flows outward to the sea, but by pumping groundwater up to the surface for use, sea water has instead started flowing inland in places.

Private wells in certain parts of Lower Township are experiencing both saltwater intrusion and contamination from other sources. The township is trying to extend a public water project to those areas to supply residents with clean drinking water.

However, Lower’s annual allocation of water is near its maximum, and an increase in the allocation is needed for expanding its current public water expansion project, which started in 2011.

“I can’t think of any place in the world that needs it more,” said resident Steve Sheftz, a former LTMUA chairman, during Wednesday’s public hearing.

Still, environmental advocates oppose the increased allocations, saying the demands for more water are excessive and will only hasten saltwater intrusion.

“That is not a solution to the township’s water supply issues,” said Jessica Daher, a coordinator for the American Littoral Society. “It is merely the repetition of the same old failed strategy that eventually leads to desalination.”

Cape May City was the first community in the state to build its own desalination plant, a $5 million facility that costs a quarter-million dollars just to power each year, an expense most governments want to avoid.

Larry Newbold, a former Rutgers University professor and agricultural agent in Cape May County, said continuing to pump more water from aquifers in the county will inevitably lead in that direction.

“Let’s keep de-watering Cape May County until the last drop,” he said, “and then we’ll have a real disaster.”

Meanwhile, officials from neighboring Wildwood and Cape May City expressed concerns with Lower Township’s application, asking the DEP to make sure their increased pumping would not impact their own wells.

Matt Ecker, executive director of the LTMUA, said their request for more water is simply to supply existing development and provide clean water to homes in the Town Bank and Villas sections of the township.

New Jersey American Water’s application for increased pumping in Middle Township garnered less focus but was still controversial.

Vince Monaco, an engineering manager for the company, said the wells in question currently serve more than 5,600 customers, and increasing their amount of water would supply expected demand in the future.

“What American Water has determined is its demand through 2025 and beyond is going to exceed its current allocation,” he said.

Daher also opposed that application, as did Richard Bizub, director for water programs for Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

Bizub said there is simply not enough water in the county’s aquifers to supply such an increase, and he was skeptical that New Jersey American Water would do as much as necessary to conserve water as another way to meet demand.

He also said that any increase should be incrementally tied to conservation goals.

The DEP officials said they would take all the speakers’ comments and those written comments that were submitted into consideration when determining whether to permit the increased allocations.

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