A Drought, a Missing Water Plan and Questions for Chris Christie

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The Monksville Resevoir in northern New Jersey

New Jersey's plan for managing its drinking water supply is 20 years old and perilously out of date, say clean water advocates and planners. 

There are roughly a million more people living in New Jersey - nearly 9 million on 2016, compared to just over 8 million in 1996. There's been a shift in where residents live, too — from the suburbs back to cities. And more recently, 14 of New Jersey's 21 counties currently have a drought warning — that happens when water usage by residents, corporations, farms and other entities, outpaces the rate at which reservoirs and groundwater is replenished.

Now, as momentum grows around New Jersey's water issues — from removing lead from the aging pipes that feed many inner-city elementary schools, to fixing the underground infrastructure, state officials and environmentalists are calling on Gov. Chris Christie to release a draft of a statewide water supply plan that a team of water experts handed his office five years ago.

"It is so critical because it's an accounting of how much water we need and where to get it from," said Jennifer Coffey, executive director of Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions. Coffey has been asking to see the draft water plan for two years, but she says the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection denied her access.

NJDEP Spokesman Bob Considine told WNYC the state is still working on the draft. That's also what an agency official told State Assemblyman John McKeon last week at a hearing in Trenton that focused on the state's water systems.

"It's still in development. My staff is still working on the data around that," Daniel Kennedy, an assistant commissioner told McKeon, who pressed further.

"What's the hold-up?," McKeon asked Kennedy. "Is it such a bombshell. What’s the deal?

Kennedy replied that the answer to that question was above his pay grade.

That response hasn't satisfied anyone involved in water infrastructure in New Jersey.

"It has resulted in a damage to the public’s trust in state government," said Daniel Van Abs, a former NJDEP water planner. Now, he teaches at Rutgers University, and remains active in the water resources community. He co-authored that last 1996 plan, and Van Abs contributed to the 2011 draft that's missing in action.  He says it took only a year for the 1996 plan to be drafted, released to the public for comment, and then adopted. 

 "There’s an awful lot of people saying why isn’t this plan out?," Van Abs said. "There must be something in this plan that the state government ... doesn't want to see out there."

State water plans consider where populations live in New Jersey, and whether a new water supply is needed to sustain those populations. After the 1955 plan was written, the state created the Spruce Ren and Round Valley reservoirs in the Raritan River basin, he said. They are among the largest reservoirs in the state. 

And a second plan in 1981 resulted in the creation of the Manasquan and Monksville reservoirs, which addressed excessive water usage in Monmouth and Camden counties.