Stone Harbor plans to adopt a new water conservation law early next year with a goal of sustainability for the next century.

An ordinance that would require all new construction to use “smart” irrigation systems is one of a number of steps the island community is taking to reduce consumption and prolong its water supply.

“We believe very strongly in educating, not legislating,” Councilwoman Karen Lane said, “although we will have to legislate.”

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Pretty much every government in the state deals with water conservation to some degree. Stone Harbor is one of many that have been asking residents to be more conscious of their usage.

Despite being surrounded by water, barrier islands have significant concerns about drawing too much from their underground wells, fearing the day when salt water will intrude upon their freshwater supply.

Jeff Hoffman, a section chief with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Water Supply and Geoscience, said it would be more than 100 years before saltwater is projected to contaminate the aquifer Stone Harbor uses.

The more the community and others like it are conservative about their usage, the further away they could push that potential problem, he said.

There are plenty of other problems related to excessive water usage, such as damaging wetland ecosystems and interfering with neighboring wells.

In Stone Harbor, Lane said, the borough has asked residents to water lawns and plants only on certain days, but she estimated only about 40 percent of residents comply.

“We know we have people who aren’t complying,” she said. “We hang little tags on their doors telling them just that.”

The government has started planting drought-resistant plants instead of thirsty flowers to beautify the community.

The irrigation systems, which will be required when more than half of a property is being rehabilitated, essentially sense moisture in the air and soil and only turn on when necessary.

While conservation is key, not everyone is ready to hail these efforts as proactive as they are portrayed. Environmental advocacy groups say the only true solution is to stop development.

Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, said governments are still not taking seriously enough the threats of depleting underground water supplies.

He said efforts such as regulating sprinkler usage and using low-flow faucets are simply not enough.

“It’s kind of like redecorating a burning house,” he said.

While implementing conservation efforts, Stone Harbor is also requesting to increase its water allocation limit, which is set by the DEP.

If a community exceeds its limit, it must pay penalties. Hoffman said it is often easier and wiser to conserve water than request a higher limit.

The U.S. Geological Survey, with the DEP, issued a report in 2009 extensively analyzing water usage in Cape May County. It’s often called “The Gibson Study,” named after former Assemblyman Jack Gibson, who led the effort to get it done.

According to that report, Stone Harbor consumed 200 million gallons of water annually between 1998 and 2003. Avalon used 310 million gallons, Sea Isle City million gallons pumped 350, and Ocean City drew 1,250 million gallons.

They all draw from the Atlantic City 800-foot sand aquifer, their only source of freshwater. While those places are practically fully developed, they can still build up, and they are always looking to attract more visitors.

Stone Harbor now is permitted to use only 46 million gallons of water a month. It is nowhere near that amount in the winter, but its usage spikes in the summer.

That will mean that even after Stone Harbor adopts its ordinance this winter, a fair amount of education about that legislation will be needed when visitors return to the shore.

“It is very important for our residents, businesses, property owners and even our visitors to recognize and embrace the importance of conserving water,” Lane said.

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