An update to New Jersey’s water supply plan is 14 years overdue, leaving some to question what the state is trying to hide.

The plan is reportedly complete, but has been held up by several governors, including Gov. Chris Christie. Some speculate it would have been released by now if it contained good news.

Bill Wolfe, of the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said if the plan calls for new limits on water use, the business community will be up in arms. If it doesn’t, the environmental community will be upset.

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“It’s a no-win situation,” said Wolfe.

The plan helps determine who gets new water allocation and infrastructure dollars from the state. Water supply can even affect where new sewer lines go.

The plan separates the state into individual watersheds and outlines water supply problems in these areas that could have impacts on residential development, business, industry, agriculture and other sectors. It could identify “critical areas” where new allocations are not allowed. There are none currently in the southern shore region, but there is one in Camden County and Monmouth County.

The New Jersey Water Supply Management Act of 1981 required the plan to be updated every five years, but the last revision was in 1996.

In 2005, the Legislature passed a law specifically requiring the state Department of Environmental Protection to have an update no later than Dec. 21, 2006. That deadline was never met. In recent years, Hurricane Sandy, which damaged numerous water plants at the shore, was blamed for the delay.

Several governors have promised its imminent release. A former DEP commissioner in 2013 called it “an embarrassment” that it had not been released. The 1981 law created an 11-member Water Supply Advisory Committee to advise the DEP and its members have not even seen the report. For several years now the revision is said to be undergoing internal policy reviews.

“I don’t have a time frame for its release, but the commissioner (Bob Martin) has stated publicly it would be before the end of the year,” Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman, said recently.

The 1996 plan, which tackled a 50-year planning horizon from 1990 to 2040, predicted a water supply deficit in southern New Jersey of as much as 109 million gallons per day by the year 2040.

Of 23 watersheds in the state, the report predicted eight would be at a deficit by 2010, including three in the shore region: Mullica River, Maurice River and the Cape May Coastal watershed. Without an update, nobody knows if this happened.

Wolfe, a former DEP staffer, argues that the news is probably not good, and the Christie administration does not want to hurt business.

“They want to promote development. You can’t have more development if the water supply plan shows there is no more water,” said Wolfe.

Robert Kecskes, who wrote large sections of the update before retiring in 2011 as the DEP’s chief of water supply planning, has called for the plan’s release. Kecskes, now an environmental consultant, said knowledge of how much water is available is the cornerstone for future planning.

Without such knowledge, Kecskes said, the state would over-allocate water permits. He said this happened in the 1960s and 1970s resulting in saltwater intrusion of aquifers and the need to spend millions of dollars to find new water supplies. Kecskes said over-allocation depletes streams, affects freshwater systems, impairs water quality, reduces supplies, and increases future droughts. There is evidence it can even hurt tidal areas like Barnegat Bay, where freshwater flow is a natural part of the ecosystem.

The 1996 update set a safe water yield statewide of 1,750 million gallons per day, or MGD. The 1990 demand was 1,500 MGD, but the 2040 projection was that 1,790 MGD would be needed.

Daniel Van Abs, a former DEP administrator and now a Rutgers University professor, is concerned because the 1996 numbers were based on the state’s population growing from 7.7 million people in 1990 to 8.9 million in 2040.

“We hit 8.8 million in 2010 and are now projecting 10.4 million in 2040. The demand will absolutely go up with the population. We need water for an extra 1.5 million people,” said Van Abs.

Conservation measures could be part of the solution, he noted, as low-water plumbing fixtures have already paid dividends; unfortunately, outdoor water use is skyrocketing due to the popularity of automated irrigation systems.

Another idea is using treated wastewater to recharge aquifers or at least as a barrier to prevent saltwater from invading aquifers. Gray water could even be recycled on a residential level.

Van Abs said 80 percent of the state’s water is used once and discharged into the ocean, a figure that has not changed since 1996.

“It would be expensive to turn that around,” Van Abs said.

The state’s aging water infrastructure, Van Abs noted, already needs as much as $28 billion in repairs. Previous water supply plans have spurred infrastructure spending. The state’s first plan issued in 1982 led to new reservoirs and pipelines, while the 1996 one included funding for the Cape May desalination plant.

The Pinelands Preservation Alliance is closely following the issue since an estimated 17 trillion gallons of water lie under the Pine Barrens. Studies have shown using this water would reduce stream flows and dry up wetlands. The sandy soil means streams and groundwater are one and the same.

“If you take 10 percent from the aquifer, you can expect to see 10 percent of the wetlands converted to uplands,” said Richard Bizub, the alliance’s director for water programs.

He has heard the new plan has more in it to protect the ecology, but the alliance also wants the Pinelands Commission to take an active role managing the 223 sub-watersheds in the region. There already are problems in some areas such as Hammonton, with heavy agricultural water use, and Egg Harbor, Galloway and Stafford townships, with residential growth. Bizub said 38 of the 223 areas are already having from 10 percent to 52 percent more water removed than is being recharged by rainfall.

The Pinelands water was once sought by Philadelphia, leading the state to pass legislation to prevent its export, and now by law it can only be exported to places 10 miles from the Pinelands National Reserve. This still takes in populated areas.

“It can about be sent to Trenton, up to Freehold, and out to the barrier islands to the Cape May Canal, and west of the New Jersey Turnpike,” said Bizub.

Hajna said the update “is pretty far along,” but still faces a “lot of reviews.” He would not disclose any specifics, but gave an overview.

“It’s going to look at water supply availability and projected demand on a region-by-region basis. It will also offer new perspectives on water supply planning and management as well as drought management practices. Naturally, it will look at the connections between water use and ecological protection,” said Hajna.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711

Covered high school sports for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Graduated Rowan University in 2014.

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