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A Big U-Turn On Protecting Water Resources At Christie DEP

Multiple Initiatives Derailed


There’s been an across the board abandonment of prior DEP efforts to improve protections for NJ’s water resources.

Whether’s it’s developing drinking water standards for toxic chemicals in our water supplies; protecting Barnegat Bay from nutrient pollution; expanding protections for natural vegetated stream buffers; updating the 25 year old Water Supply Master Plan; or a host of other initiatives, the Christie DEP is headed in reverse on protections for NJ’s water resources.

That disturbing conclusion overwhelmed me yesterday, as I was doing some background research for the upcoming debate on the new Open Space implementation legislation. That investigation brought me to the water resources section of a 2004 DEP Open Space Master Plan.

The contrast between what DEP was doing then and what they are doing now is stunning.

Perhaps even worse, DEP efforts to better plan for and integrate land use and water resource protections have completely been abandoned.

And that policy U-Turn has drawn very little criticism from the Legislature, the media, or NJ’s environmental groups, who themselves have for the most part abandoned these issues, moved on to other issues, and followed the Foundation grant money.

[Private foundations and most NJ conservation groups have abandoned the traditional framework of the Clean Water Act,  ENGO activism, and government driven planning and regulation in favor of an educational and market based model that relies on private, individual, voluntary actions and land acquisition. The failure to fund a Delaware Bayshore regional initiative, modeled on the Highlands and Pinelands regional planning models, is the textbook illustration of that sea change. “Talk softly and carry no stick”. More posts on this major paradigm shift to come.]

That 2004 Open Space Master Plan was required by legislation signed into law in 2002 by Governor McGreevey.

For the first time, the Legislature emphasized protection of water resources as a priority in the open space program, specifically listing aquifers, stream corridors, and flood prone areas as important targets for acquisition, and required DEP to prepare an Open Space Master Plan that prioritized and integrated water resource protections –

This is something that is totally lacking in the efforts by current proponents of open space funding, who selfishly and foolishly slashed DEP water resource program funding.

Back in 2002, the Legislature found:

  • that the  protection and preservation of New Jersey’s water resources, including  the quality and quantity of the State’s limited water supply, is essential to the quality of life and the economic health of the citizens of the; that the acquisition of flood-prone areas is in the best interests of the State to prevent the loss of life and property;  
  • that of the open space preserved, as much of those lands as possible shall protect water resources and preserve adequate habitat and other environmentally sensitive areas; 

That expansion of the role of water resource protection did not come at the expense of NJ’s urban areas – here was the 2005 earmark:

Urban Parks – Camden and Mercer counties $12,000,000 

Providing recreation opportunities in urban areas is a national priority. Urban public park open space and recreation areas have suffered from a lack of funding, maintenance and available land. Creating and enhancing public open space in urban areas improves the quality of life for urban residents and workers, can be an urban redevelopment catalyst and serves a critical role in controlling suburban sprawl. Recognizing the importance of urban parks, Green Acres will continue to acquire land in New Jersey’s cities to expand and improve park and recreation opportunities.

Again, our current crop of elite open space advocates have abandoned that effort as well as attempts to promote environmental justice.

So, let’s take a look at some of the “Statewide Water Resource Initiatives” included in that 2004 DEP Plan and then underway in 2004 during the *McGreevey Administration (excerpts do not include the nutrient reduction strategy initiated by new standard for phosphorus) – and note that all of them have been derailed by Governor Christie’s DEP:

Statewide Water Resource Initiatives

During the preparation of this plan, several other plans and studies were consulted and reviewed to ensure that the State was undertaking a comprehensive approach in its water resource and open space planning. In addition, there are initiatives that are currently underway that will assist the State in its land preservation program. […]

New Jersey Statewide Water Supply Plan: Work on the Statewide Water Supply Plan will continue concurrent with the implementation of the 2003-04 Water Supply Action Plan. Significant milestones that will be utilized in the Plan during 2004 are the development of Water Budgets and Ecological Flow Goals. The Plan includes the acquisition of the Kingston Quarry as a future reservoir site in the Raritan River Basin with a capacity of 14.2 billion gallons. The final Statewide Water Supply will be completed by December 2006.

2003-04 Water Supply Action Plan: As a part of water supply planning this plan identifies actions to be taken as a interim step in the ongoing of statewide water supply planning process. The plan identifies 11 actions to be undertaken by the State in response to the 2002 drought and emphasizes the need to refine its approach to managing regional water supply and demand. Actions include water supply construction projects, water supply studies in addition to acquisition and legislative initiatives.

New Jersey Clean Water Trust Fund: This proposed legislation would establish a New Jersey Clean Water Trust Fund, to be administered by the Department of Environmental Protection. The legislation will establish a stable funding source supported by two new user fees based on water consumption and water diversion to provide grant and loan funding to municipalities, counties and authorities for water resources and water quality projects. Projects which protect existing water supplies through land preservation, maintain existing public open space restoration, establish new water impoundment’s, interconnect water supplies, and control flooding and provide the State match for federal projects funded pursuant to the “Water Resources Development Act” are among those eligible for funding pursuant to this bill. This bill would provide a stable and continuous source of funding for natural resource projects designed to protect the State’s water resources.

Upper Delaware Watershed Management Project: This joint project between the North Jersey Resource Conservation and Development Council and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection developed criteria for water resource values that can be used for land preservation purposes. It created an evaluation system for the identification and ranking of lands that should be preserved because of their water resource values. This system utilizes GIS data to rank the water resource values of parcels in the watershed. The project identified over 9,000 acres of high value water resource lands in the Upper Delaware Watershed. […]

State Category One (C1) Waters: New Jersey has embarked on a program to increase the number of water bodies with the C1 designation. This designation is the highest form of water quality protection afforded by the State. It prevents any measurable deterioration in existing water quality, limiting development in parts and discharges to streams. The objective of C1 waters is to protect drinking water supplies, wildlife habitat, and recreation resources. The following waterbodies have been designated as C1 and representing of nearly 44,000 acres of reservoirs and 600 stream miles. The nine reservoirs provide drinking water to over 3.5 million residents, over 40 percent of New Jersey’s population. […]

Source Water Assessment Program (SWAP): Source water protection is a Environmental Agency program that requires all states to establish a SWAP. New Jersey’s SWAP will be in place at the end of 2004 and consists the assessments of publics drinking water sources, potential contamination issues and public education. Contaminant source management includes zoning and land preservation. Information from the SWAP will provide the State and local governments the information necessary to protect drinking supplies.

Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act: This legislation passed in August 2004, created a 758,000 acre region divided into two segments, a 395,000 acre Preservation Area and a 363,000 acre Planning Area. Designed to protect water resources and other natural and recreation resources and manage growth, the Act establishes a Highlands Council that will prepare a regional master plan by June 2006 that will identify land preservation and smart growth opportunities.

*Full disclosure: I worked on these issues, including the Highlands Act, Category One program; and planning and integration of open space and land use issues while at DEP from 2002- 2004.

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