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Water Wars – Farmers Versus The Rest of Us

Clinton Reservoir (Aug, 11, 2010)

Clinton Reservoir (Aug. 11, 2010)

A dispute in Washington Township (Morris County) illustrates at least three significant statewide policy issues that stem from flaws in New Jersey’s Water Supply Management Act and how it is implemented by DEP.

The first is the lack of legal authority for DEP to regulate the withdrawal of water by farmers regardless of competing uses for water supply and/or impacts on the environment. Into that legal void, farmers generate expansive and false expectations under the Right to Farm Act. But the Right To Farm Act does not provide any protections to pollute or deplete public water supplies.

The second is failure of DEP to enforce clean water laws to restrict use of chemicals (pesticides, fertilizers) by farmers to protect public health and the  environment.

And the third is the lack of an overall rational policy framework to address issues of allocating water among competing water users and the environment, due to failure by DEP to Update the Statewide Water Supply Master Plan since 1996.

But you wouldn’t know any of that that by reading the news coverage of this dispute, in fact, you might get exactly the opposite impression.

The coverage did not bring those issues out because it incompletely defined the issue by  focusing too heavily on the use of eminent domain to condemn private property.

The Morris Daily Record reported: “NJ opposes Washington Township MUA bid to seize private Long Valley Far to dig wells”.

At issue is a plan by the township authority to invoke eminent domain and take over 0.86-acres on both the Smith farm on Drakestown Road and the Searles farm on Flocktown Road for the installment of public water wells. Both farms are in agricultural development areas, where agriculture is the preferred use of the land. Additionally, both farms are located within the Highlands Preservation Area.

Does the Record reporter know that the primary objective of the Preservation Area is the protection of public water supply for half the State’s residents? (that’s both water quality and water quantity protection – “clean and plentiful”, as the DEP slogan goes).

The Star Ledger story also failed to engage the key issues because – like the Morris Daily Record – it allowed the farmers to define the problem.

In doing that, the story unfortunately created a false impression that the lack of state authority was limited to an inability to block the use of eminent domain to condemn private property for public uses; and that the use of pesticides and fertilizers is strictly limited (i.e “prohibited”) to protect water supplies:

The problem, said Hope Gruzlovic, spokeswoman for the Agricultural Development Committee, is that the two farms are in an Agricultural Development Area, a designation awarded by Morris County, which means that agriculture is the preferred use of the land.

Digging wells on the two working farms would have “unreasonably adverse impacts on the preservation and enhancement of agriculture,” Gruzlovic said.

Pesticides, herbicides and livestock would all be prohibited for fear of contaminating the water supply.

“It limits the type of agricultural activity that can take place on the farm,” Gruzlovic said. …

…  The state cannot stop the MUA and has only the power to delay the project and hold a public hearing.

“Beyond that, its authority is limited to recommendations,” Gruzlovic said.

No, the County Ag designation is not THE problem (and there is not just one problem and it can not be defined by one special interest group) and the far more important limit in State authority is inability to regulate agricultural withdraw of water.

New Jersey is entering another drought and some portions of the state are under drought emergency conditions. For example, last week, DEP issued a drought watch for the northeastern region of the state and Bergen County Executive imposed  mandatory water conservation requirements.

Yet while people and businesses are being asked - and in some cases legally forced – to conserve water, farmers are under no such obligations.

In fact, DEP has no legal power to restrict the use of water by farmers.

That’s right, regardless of the severity of the drought emergency,farmers can continue business as usual. As I wrote on August 11:

4. Develop a management program to better restrict and impose allocation requirements on farmers. Under current rules, a DEP issued water alllocation permit is NOT required for agricultural uses, regardless of volume or impact. An Agricultural Water Usage Certificationor Agricultural Water Use Registration must be obtained from the County agricultural agent if a person has the capability to withdraw ground and/or surface water in excess of 100,000 gallons per day for agricultural, aquacultural or horticultural purposes.

Obviously, that is not good public policy and it must be reformed.

And I didn’t even mention the fact that not only does farm irrigation have large impacts on the environment (e.g. by depleting groundwater and reducing stream base flow), farming is one of the biggest polluters of groundwater (e.g. nitrates from fertilizers) and nearby streams via runoff of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics used on the farm.

Farmers have to become part of the water supply solution, instead of part of the problem.

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  1. August 20th, 2010 at 08:01 | #1

    Interesting that more than one governor has wanted to roll the Dept. of Agriculture into the DEP. That would have been interesting………..

  1. August 26th, 2010 at 08:19 | #1
  2. September 7th, 2010 at 16:30 | #2
  3. March 22nd, 2011 at 22:10 | #3
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