Intense development in and around the Pinelands, from iron forges and munitions factories to the McMansions of today, has severely distressed the region’s lifeblood: its groundwater.

“The more we develop, the more we damage the very assets that attract development in the first place,” said Daniel Van Abs, a Rutgers University professor behind a report released Tuesday through the planning advocacy group New Jersey Future.

While the survey focuses on three areas in South Jersey — Hammonton; Little Egg Harbor Township-Tuckerton; and Evesham-Medford — the findings are typical of problems found throughout South Jersey.

Sprawling neighborhoods encroach upon forests and wetlands important for a healthy ecosystem and storm protection. Those communities require a lot of drinking water, drawing down the shallow Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer that also feeds many wetlands. Recharging that groundwater is more difficult because of the impervious surfaces created by development. Meanwhile, the quality of drinking water is threatened by agricultural and industrial activity.

“These areas are typical of three very different kinds of land use patterns you often find in the Pinelands,” Van Abs said.

Hammonton is one of the oldest farming communities in Atlantic County, incorporated in 1866, with a distinct grid of streets and aging infrastructure. Tuckerton is a historic seaport surrounded by the newer suburbs of Little Egg that are constantly endangered by coastal storms and sea level rise. The Burlington County townships are bedroom communities for Philadelphia built atop former forest land.

Agricultural runoff has resulted in nearly every part of the watershed around Hammonton violating surface water quality standards because of pH levels, in addition to high levels of nitrates due to fertilizer. Water demands exceed capacity, resulting in large swaths of wetlands that are projected to experience a 4-inch decrease in water level due to well-water withdrawals in 2012.

Shellfishing was banned from 23.5 acres of Tuckerton Creek due to fecal coliform, although only one small area of the nearby watershed was in violation of standards because of pH levels. Between 1986 and 2007, the area lost 1,800 acres to urban development and 396 acres of tidal wetlands that help protect against storms.

Chris Sturm, NJ Future’s senior director of state policy, said Pinelands regulations have generally been effective in directing growth to area that make sense, but water resources haven’t been as well managed.

“Water is a regional system that doesn’t respect municipal or planning boundaries,” she said.

Tuesday’s report outlines a series of recommendations for each of the three areas that serve as case studies, but actually implementing them can be difficult. Van Abs said municipalities already face many competing priorities that vie for a limited amount of funding.

“The problem is all of these things happen slowly,” he said. “How do you make this come home to those who are making decisions for the municipality? It’s very difficult because they’re dealing with a projection of things they haven’t seen yet.”

Often, Van Abs said, local officials don’t act on things such as water conservation or infrastructure upgrades until circumstances force them to.

Hammonton, for its part, is one municipality that’s begun working on these issues.

“We feel that water conservation is a big part of making sure our groundwater resource is sustained for a long time,” said Jerry Barberio, the city’s business administrator and public works director.

In the last year, Barberio said, Hammonton has seen a 15 percent decrease in water usage as officials have called upon residents to use water more wisely.

It’s also the site of an innovative plan to use treated wastewater to irrigate public property. While the concept is nothing new, Hammonton’s project would be the first in the state.

In general, most wastewater statewide ends up in the ocean — which does nothing to restore groundwater supplies.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said that process is the “vicious cycle of groundwater.” And the existing standards for water quality are in danger of being degraded, he said.

“We’re so in deficit we’re using charge cards to pay off mortgages to borrow money to pay for more loans,” he said.

Sturm said NJ Future worked with both the Pinelands Commission and the state Department of Environmental Protection in the lead-up to the report. While improving infrastructure can be a dauntingly expensive, she said, many of the other recommendations are less expensive.

“Limiting water withdrawals and requiring or incentivizing conservation doesn’t cost a lot of money,” she said. “It just takes a little political will.”

Van Abs said Hammonton officials have dealt with the problem instead of “just sitting in opposition,” like some troubled municipalities.

“If they keep going in this direction, in five or 10 years we could hold them out as a model for the state,” he said.

Hammonton is currently constructing a $500,000 system of drip-tubing on 26.5 acres, a project Barberio said should be completed this fall. A second phase of the project will irrigate about 22 acres of athletic fields, which could begin construction in November if funding is secured.

“The purpose of this whole project is to make sure we stay out of Hammonton Creek and use our effluent water for beneficial purposes,” he said.

Van Abs said regulations enacted since the 1970s have led to smarter development, but the money has simply not been made available to improve infrastructure and clean up existing problems.

“It’s a statement of society’s priorities,” he said. “A single roads project, such as a new interchange, will cost more than all the money for non-point source (pollution) statewide.”

Contact Wallace McKelvey:

609-272-7256

@wjmckelvey on Twitter

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