New Jersey Unprepared for Climate Threats to Water Supplies
Absence of Planning & Regulatory Freeze Stymie Critical Water Management Steps
Trenton — Experts see climate change having major impacts on New Jersey’s water supplies and infrastructure but the state is not paying attention, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Failure to take steps in the short-term allows risks to multiply while forfeiting flexibility needed to effectively avert, mitigate or respond to coming water emergencies.
Rutgers Professor Dan Van Abs outlined effects the state should expect to see from climate change at the August 18th meeting of the state Water Supply Advisory Council, according to its minutes, including:
- Sea level rise will cause saltwater intrusion into groundwater supplies;
- Chemical and biological changes in water quality due to higher temperatures, more flooding and invasive species infestations; and
- More intense storms will create more turbidity, thus increasing treatment costs.
When asked what actions are most needed, the first step he named was that the Statewide Water Supply Plan should be released. But that plan is long overdue and appears to be mired in politics. At a recent joint Senate-Assembly meeting on Hurricane Sandy recovery, former Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Mark Mauriello testified that:
“…we have a State Water Supply Plan that is 17 years old. It’s an embarrassment… [The] Water Supply Management Act requires that this plan be updated every five years. It hasn’t been updated since 1996. When I took over as Commissioner and had the authority to really boss people around, I had our Water Supply Division, in one year, complete a final draft update of that plan, which was being reviewed in December of ’09. Unfortunately I ran out of time due to the circumstances of the election… that plan has languished. And the word from DEP now is that they have ‘parked the plan.’ That’s a quote from the highest levels of the agency. We have to get the plan out of park.”
“Since we last had a water plan, a lot has changed besides the climate – higher demand, greater loss of wetlands, vernal pools and riparian buffers plus our infrastructure has gotten older,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, pointing out that the 1996 plan is even further out of date since it was based upon hydrological data from the 1980’s. “Without an up-to-date plan, the state will carom from one water crisis to the next, seesawing from drought to floods.”
The state’s rudderless water posture is aggravated by Christie administration polices, such as a regulatory moratorium which prevents updated water supply regulations and a “Red Tape” review designed to roll back rules related to water resource management. Even though it advises DEP, no DEP staff even attended the last Water Supply Advisory Council meeting and the current DEP Commissioner has never met with the Council.
“New Jersey water planning is adrift due to lack of executive branch leadership,” added Wolfe, noting a 2013 U.S. Government Accountability Office report calling for greater federal-state cooperation in water infrastructure planning. “New Jersey can no longer afford to pretend that climate change is a topic solely for academics without major real world consequences.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability