CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - Laura Babbish picked her way nimbly through the forest of saplings and shrubs at Cape Shore Gardens Nursery and Landscaping, where she is manager.
The wind had knocked over some of the potted spruces overnight, and Babbish set about righting them so they were within the automatic sprinklers' reach.
Water is the currency of life at this Middle Township business - and the rest of southern New Jersey. But Cape May County's water supply is in jeopardy.
"If the county did nothing, it would be in trouble," said Pierre J. Lacombe, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
He completed an ambitious study last year that projected the county's supply and demand for water over the next 50 years.
This county of 96,000 people consumes 7.7 billion gallons of water every year, most of it during the tourism season when demand climbs sixfold.
The study prepared models for nine scenarios. If water usage remains stable, the county will have to do little or nothing to meet demand.
Water use on most of the barrier islands from Ocean City to Wildwood has virtually leveled off in the past decade, the result of a countywide movement to promote low-flow toilets and other conservation measures, Lacombe said.
But if new construction occupies all potential habitable space on the mainland - a hypothetical scenario called build-out - Cape May County will consume as much as 67 percent more water.
More pressing is the gradual creep of saltwater intrusion into some of Cape May County's southernmost wells. This forced Cape May to build a desalination plant in the 1990s to serve communities south of the Cape May Canal.
The Wildwoods get most of their water from wells in Middle Township.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is concerned salt water will intrude into some Lower Township and most Wildwood supply wells and shallow private wells along the county's southern coast, the report said.
The report's nine options include a combination of new wells or desalination plants or simply doing nothing.
"These are the facts. What are our choices economically and socially?" Lacombe said.
Cape May County has had water worries for most of its 300-year existence, Lacombe said.
In the 1930s, a cement company and a block-ice producer went out of business in the Anglesea section of North Wildwood after salt water infiltrated their wells.
"You can't make cement with salt water," Lacombe said.
In the 1940s, the U.S. Navy dug a well in the Diamond Beach section of Lower Township on property now owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. The well turned salty in a matter of months, Lacombe said.
Cape May County has five aquifers - underground sources of fresh drinking water. As water is drawn from shallow coastal wells, it creates a void that salt water fills, Lacombe said.
"None of our wells has a sodium problem now," said Matthew Ecker, superintendent and engineer for the Lower Township Municipal Utilities Authority.
"Modeling tells us that salt will move in," he said. "But even the U.S. Geological Survey will admit this. In modeling scenarios, the real variable is time. When will it reach our wells? That's the challenge."
The authority provides drinking water to about 6,000 customers in Lower Township. It plans to dig a new well near the Cape May County Airport in the Erma section of the township if saltwater intrudes on its southernmost well in North Cape May.
Meanwhile, none of the options outlines the potential costs - the next step in deciding how to keep taps running, said Charlie Norkis, director of the Cape May County Municipal Utilities Authority.
"There is plenty of water. It's just not in the right locations," Norkis said. "We need a full picture. You can look at which options are more socially responsible. But we need to know how much it will cost."
At Cape Shore Nursery, Babbish waters the plants in the morning when the air is cooler and full of moisture. The nursery loses less water to evaporation, she said. The nursery has permeable plastic mats that discourage weeds but allow the excess water to seep back into the ground.
Cape Shore Nursery has its own private wells that are in no danger of drying up. But every drop counts.
"We try to conserve as much as possible," she said.
Contact Michael Miller: