Home > Uncategorized > Another Delay In Restrictions on Water Withdrawals Threatens Pinelands Ecosystems

Another Delay In Restrictions on Water Withdrawals Threatens Pinelands Ecosystems

“Draining the Pinelands”

Stronger regulations stay under the radar

On Friday, during the regular monthly meeting of the Pinelands Commission, staff presented the FY 2016 budget for the Commission’s approval – aside from some consternation over failure to provide staff raises and adequate funding to fill the authorized 66 professional positions, it was a snooze.

While threats to the Pinelands escalate, the Commission’s staff has been cut back to just 42 (2 of whom are part time) –  that’s a draconian 36%  cut from the authorized staff level of 66 full time professionals required to protect Pinelands ecosystems.

Recall the context of the FY’16 budget: in what could only have been a punitive move for killing his South Jersey Gas pipeline, Governor Christie accused the Commission of a “gross abuse of power” and vetoed the Commission’s 5% staff salary increase. On top of that, the Governor’s  budget is starving the Commission and crippling its ability to protect the Pines.

Exacerbating the lack of resources and staff, Executive Director Wittenberg is a puppet of the Gov.’s Office, so staff are kept on a very short leash in terms of science, planning and regulatory work, and Wittenberg has proven adept in manipulating and controlling the Commission on policy issues.

So Governor Christie is having his way in the Pinelands – and it is a very destructive way indeed.

Critical Water Regulations Delayed Again

Aside from these budget and staff cuts – which did generate discussion – a scarcely mentioned but hugely significant single line item from the FY’16 budget passed by unnoticed.

Commission planner Larry Liggitt quietly mentioned a professional services line item with the US Geological Survey (USGS) – it passed right by with not a question or comment.

Liggitt almost whispered that the USGS would:

USGS will delineate watersheds between the HUC 11 and HUC 14 so the Commission can better regulate

What’s a HUC? What are the implications of this work for the Commission’s Kirkwood-Cohansey Project? How will it effect the new regulations being developed?

These are critical questions that no one even asked. The fear was palpable.

Wham! The “R” word: REGULATION!

Regulation is taboo in the Christie administration, so no wonder Liggitt was whispering and hoping no one would catch on and ask what the USGS study was all about.

No wonder Mike Gross, NJ Builders Association lawyer was at the meeting (recall that the last time Gross attended, he rose to defend ED Wittenberg from withering public criticism about her role in the email scandal. So, Nancy and Mike must have a backchannel conversation).

So just what IS that USGS study all about? And what is Mr. Gross concerned about?

A few weeks ago, veteran Asbury Park Press environmental reporter Todd Bates wrote a must read comprehensive series of stories on threats to the Pinelands, see:

In a section titled Draining the Pinelands, one of the critical threats Bates noted was over-pumping of the Pinelands groundwater to serve development and agriculture and how new regulations were required to reduce the negative ecological impacts of that pumping.

Such restrictions would obviously limit future development in the Pines.

But Bates, who was focused on DEP and the State Water Supply Plan, missed the Pinelands water allocation story.

Over a year ago, Liggitt explained the significance to the Press of Atlantic City:

“We are asking what changes do we have to make to our rules to allocate quantities of water better.” said Liggitt. “We have to ask what does the future hold as to development in the Pinelands, and use the findings to see how regulations should change.”

Liggitt said the commission hopes to make initial recommendations on new regulations in the next year, and to work with municipalities to help them manage water use better through water conservation, recharging of wastewater and maybe even getting some of their water from other sources.

Those are the kind of quotes in the newspaper that are perceived by folks like Mr. Gross of the NJ Builders Association as existential threats – and they get the attention of the Governor’s office.

That kind of quote can get a professional called on the carpet by management real fast. I’m sure ED Wittenberg got a call from the Front Office asking what the hell was going on down there and read Liggitt the riot act about that.

But more than a year has passed and there are no new regulations on water allocations.

Liggitt’s remark that “regulations should change” in the Pinelands is based on the Kirkwood-Cohansey Project, a decade long series of research that began back in 2003.

Scientists from the cooperating agencies and institutions completed a work plan for the Kirkwood Cohansey Project that underwent peer review.  The work plan, which was approved by the Commission in October 2003 following a public hearing, addressed two major research questions.  First, what are the probable hydrologic effects of groundwater diversions from the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer on stream flows and wetland water levels?  Second, what are the probable ecological effects of induced stream-flow and groundwater-level changes on aquatic and wetland communities?

Twelve separate studies were completed as part of the Kirkwood-Cohansey Project.   The results of some of the studies can be used to estimate the potential impacts of groundwater withdrawals on aquatic and wetland resources in the Pinelands, which can help provide the foundation for developing improved water-supply policies for the (sic). Below is a brief summary of each study and links to the published reports and/or journal articles.

Pines research has documented the effects of water withdrawals on wetlands and forest,  fish and stream invertebrates,  aquatic habitat, endangered swamp pink, pond vegetation and frogs. 

As Liggitt notes in the Press of Atlantic City story from last April and Bates’s APP story from last month, the Commission is developing regulations to restrict water allocation in order to protect critical ecological values.

But, after more than a decade, just as the Commission was about to pull the regulatory trigger, they blinked and now go to USGS for more science and more delay.

Commission scientists and planners had been applying that research to derive limits on the amount of water that could be allocated to protect ecological resources. Their analyses were generating very strict limits that would severely limit future growth and possibly force existing users to scale back existing water use in deficit watersheds.

In general terms, when a small size watershed is used, the analysis produces larger ecological impacts and stronger restrictions on the amount of water that can be allocated.

When a larger scale HUC watershed is used, much smaller impacts result and less restrictive limits are generated.

Watersheds are mapped based on various scales, known as HUCs (Hydrological Unit Codes).

There are 150 HUC 11’s in NJ and 921 HUC 14’s (see state map of HUC’s).

As Larry Liggitt noted, the USGS work to come up with a hybrid HUC 11 and HUC 14 – this kind of watershed delineation will have 2 negative impacts:

1) it will delay the Pinelands Commission’s efforts to adopt new rules that restrict water allocation; and

2) it will weaken the restrictions that are ultimately adopted in future.

And that’s just what Mr. Gross of the NJ Builders Association and his friends in Governor Christie’s Office ordered.

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