NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The drought warning for several New Jersey counties, in effect since October 2016, has been lifted.
According to an April 12 press release from the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJ-DEP), winter and early spring precipitation has resulted in “steady improvements in our drought indicators for most of the state."
The snow and rain that bogged up transit for most of the winter has replenished major reservoirs and rendered the drought warning for 12 of the state's 21 counties unnecessary, as well as the drought watch for four counties in the southwestern part of the state.
Hunterdon and Somerset Counties continue to struggle with their drinking water supply and will stay under drought warning as the reservoirs that serve them are still listed as severely dry on the NJDEP website.
For those counties, maintaining the reduced flow requirement for the Round Valley and Spruce Run reservoirs that supply them is expected to save anywhere between seven to ten billion gallons in the reservoirs over the upcoming summer months and allow the reservoirs to continue to improve, according to Beth Gates, Executive Director for the New Jersey Water Supply Authority.
The continued warning for Central Jersey may also be a safety measure designed to avoid exacerbating drought conditions, as was the case last year.
Shortly after the warning was lifted, the State released a draft of its long-overdue water supply plan, which looks at water quality, areas for improvement, and analyzes water-system connections.
It has taken nearly two decades to update the plan, despite a legal requirement for it to be updated every five years and criticism from political leaders, environmentalists, and water-supply experts who see the plan as integral to development and environmental conservation.
The release of the 92-page document came as a surprise to many who thought the Christie administration would leave office before the report was issued, due to the possibility of negative impacts on real estate development.
The report was optimistic about the state’s water levels, claiming there was enough water to achieve conservation goals, due in part to widespread adoption of water-efficient appliances.
The document also addressed the deteriorating subterranean pipeline of older cities, citing a need to coordinate policy with stressed water management systems and supplement them with surface water sources and aquifers.
The biggest challenges for water-supply planners are shifts in residential populations and industries, the unpredictable weather that is expected to come with climate change, and the lack of public awareness about the need for new infrastructure.
Bob Kecskes, who headed the DEP’s water planning section until 2011, criticized the report for not depicting an honest picture of the state's water supply.
The report divides the state into 20 water management systems, while Kecskes argues there are about 150 watersheds in New Jersey, of which about a third are in “deficit,” meaning too much water is being pulled from them causing ecological damage.
Kecskes made the deficit assessment in 2011 before he left the DEP.
When you look at the state water supply availability from 150 watersheds, it doesn’t look good,” Kecskes said in a NJ Spotlight report. “So they combined everything into the bigger watershed management areas. There’s so much masking that can occur, that it becomes of limited utility.”
New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel has been outspoken about both the lifting of the drought warning and a critic of the new water supply plan.
"We are concerned because our state's largest reservoir is well below normal and our groundwater levels are still very low," said Tittel. "We also have not adapted our Drought Warning System to climate change and changing weather patterns.”
He added that the new water supply plan “out-of-date, flawed and incomplete.”
"Nature may determine the amount of rain," he said, "but government policies can make droughts worse."
When New Brunswick Today asked the DEP about the delayed report, and the discrepancies in numbers of water management systems, the DEP shifted blame to previous administrations, and said they were unaware of any criticism.
“This plan has gone through four or five administrations, and only this one has taken the time to compile the data and present it to the public. We looked at the watersheds and used the most recent data to create the report,” said DEP spokesperson Bob Considine.
Asked about the Sierra Club's criticism directly, Considine said, "We don't care about Jeff Tittel."