Is there enough fresh water beneath Cape May County’s largest municipality to sustain its growing population?

New Jersey American Water believes so, and so do state Department of Environmental Protection officials. Environmental advocates, however, do not.

The water company is requesting that the DEP increase the limit on how much it can pump from an aquifer below Middle Township, arguing it is necessary to satisfy increasing demand.

Groups such as the American Littoral Society and Pinelands Preservation Alliance say that is a bad long-term plan because it does not adequately address the need for better water conservation in the county.

At stake is the ability of future generations to get clean, inexpensive freshwater in a place where increased water usage has caused saltwater to encroach on and contaminate wells.

“DEP is not doing anyone a favor by granting more water in an area where they realize they have a big problem,” said Richard Bizub, director for water programs for the PPA.

The DEP’s Division of Water Supply and Geoscience regulates how much water companies and utilities can pump for public use. NJAW wants to increase its annual pumping limit from 271.5 million gallons to 421.4 million gallons, a 150 million-gallon increase.

The company’s system supplies more than 5,600 customers in the township. If it were not for a contract with the Wildwood water department, it would already not be able to pump enough water to meet demand.

Last year, the company pumped more than 248 million gallons from its wells and bought about 47 million gallons from Wildwood, totaling 295 million gallons. It sold about 14 million gallons of that in the Stone Harbor Manor community.

A draft staff report from the DEP recommends approving the increase, while requiring that the company install an observation well that would monitor water levels in the aquifer it uses.

“We take a responsibility to those aquifers very seriously, and we don’t want to do anything to endanger them,” company spokesman Peter Eschbach said.

According to the company’s permit, they have promoted low-flow shower heads and other conservation methods through advertisements in the region.

The DEP’s review was before a public hearing on the application in Cape May Court House on Dec. 19, when Bizub and others objected to the proposal.

Jessica Daher, a conservation coordinator with the ALS, cited several sources showing that more is being pumped out of the aquifers NJAW uses than they can dependably yield.

“There is no finding here that the proposed withdrawals will not accelerate saltwater intrusion, lower existing stream-base flow or harm ecological functions or wildlife,” she said.

The company’s Cape May Court House system draws from two aquifer systems — the shallow Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer and the deeper Atlantic City 800-foot sand aquifer. The application looks to only increase pumping from the latter.

New Jersey American’s contract with Wildwood Water allows it to buy 90 million gallons per year from its supply to meet its water demands.

Eschbach said the requested increase would ensure it can get enough water for its customers as well as supply future growth.

Geographically, Middle Township is the largest municipality in Cape May County. Its population grew by 2,500 people, to almost 19,000, since 2000, even as the county lost more than 5,000 residents.

Eschbach said the company’s limit was set long before that increase and is not in line with current needs, let alone future growth. He said they believe demand can be met without significant issues.

“We’re not interested in doing anything that’s detrimental to the environment,” he said.

The DEP is reviewing the application and could amend it based on comments received during the recent public hearing.

Contact Lee Procida:

609-463-6712

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