MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Close to 1,000 homes will have access to fresh drinking water under a deal struck to bring Lower Township water to the Middle Township bayfront community of Del Haven.
Saltwater intrusion threatens the private wells in this small community, which is far closer to the Villas section of Lower Township than to Middle Township’s center in Cape May Court House. Some residents continue to use their wells for bathing and other needs, but now drink only bottled water.
On Monday, May 20, Middle Township Committee approved a deal with the Lower Township Municipal Utilities Authority to expand water services to Del Haven as well as a portion of Green Creek and other nearby neighborhoods.
“This is a pretty big deal, I would say. It’s something we’ve been working on a pretty long time. Something that we thought might have been dead — I won’t say ‘dead in the water’ — we thought might have been dead a few times,” said Mayor Timothy Donohue during the workshop portion of the May 20 meeting. “We worked very hard to be innovative and creative.”
According to Mike Chapman, the executive director of the Lower Township MUA, the total cost of the project will be about $10 million. That includes extending the water mains from Villas to the project area and tying in to the Wildwood water utility to ensure enough water supply.
He said the state has sought more interconnectivity in the water supply systems for southern Cape May County, as a hedge against future saltwater intrusion or other supply problems.
Attorney Joseph Baumann Jr. of the firm McManimon, Scotland and Baumann presented the water deal to Township Committee at the May 20 workshop, before it was approved by resolution at the committee’s regular meeting. He said 983 properties would be included in the coverage area under the long-term deal.
Those property owners will be required to connect to the new water system, he said. The committee is expected to introduce an ordinance at an upcoming meeting mandating those connections be made, giving owners about a year to connect to the new system.
“You can’t finance a project like this unless everybody is going to have to pay for this,” he said. All told, property owners will pay about $614 a year for water under the arrangement, a number that includes the connection fees and debt service on the new water lines.
Donohue said a key component of his support for the deal is that it will be paid for by those benefiting. Middle Township will not take on new debt for the project, and taxpayers will not fund the water work, he said, “except for paying you,” he added to Baumann.
Other options considered would have connected the homes to the New Jersey American Water Co. or the creation of a water utility or department for Middle Township. According to Baumann, each of those options would have cost Middle Township taxpayers and had other drawbacks.
Most homes in Middle Township either have private wells or are tied in the N.J. American system.
Under the agreement, Middle Township is obliged to defend against any challenges to the mandatory connection ordinance, although Baumann said at the meeting that he did not expect any.
According to Del Haven resident Jim Norris, water at some properties in his area is essentially undrinkable. He said he has a water filter, and still only drinks bottled water at home. A Republican candidate for Township Committee this year, he said some neighbors have had water problems for 20 years, and he expects access to municipal water to increase property values. Most will be eager to sign up, he said.
“I don’t see very much reluctance at all,” he said. Other options, including digging new and much deeper wells to reach below the saltwater intrusion, would prove far more expensive, he said.
For most homeowners within the project area, Baumann said, the water rate would be about $54 per quarter, with an additional charge of $99.41 per quarter to cover the cost of the water main installation. There is also a one-time connection fee of $1,600 to tie into the system, which can be incorporated into the water bill interest-free, for an additional $80 per quarter until that total is paid off after five years.
“We’re trying to do that in a way that is affordable, sustainable and brings water to an area of our town that really, really is in desperate need of it,” said Donohue. “The folks there have suffered a long time, a lot of them, with barely functioning wells and not the highest quality water. I think this is something we’ve been talking about for 20 years.”
Committeeman Michael Clark, a longtime firefighter, said the project will include the installation of fire hydrants. That will improve fire safety, he said, and save money for owners on fire district taxes and on their insurance bills.
The project could begin within a year and would take about nine months to a year to complete once construction begins.
Contacted after the meeting, Chapman said the LTMUA continues to expand water service within Lower Township. The most recent expansion, the second phase of a project in the Villas section, was recently completed, he said. He sees the Del Haven expansion as a good deal for all involved.
Most residential wells are about 20 to 40 feet deep, relying on groundwater, he said. The Lower Township wells, like other municipal wells, are dug far deeper into the Cohansey Aquifer.
With the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Delaware Bay to the west, Cape May County is particularly susceptible to saltwater intrusion. As fresh water is drawn for residential use, that water is replaced by salty or brackish water surrounding the county.