Protecting the Quantity of Water
The NJ Department of Environmental Protection currently reviews all requests for allocations of water from the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer and other fresh water sources. The thresholds the Department applies have proven inadequate to protect the aquifer from the cumulative and individual impacts of withdrawals on surface waters. The Pinelands Commission is also charged with reviewing all allocation requests, but historically has not applied any specific thresholds to protect Pinelands resources from the impacts of removing water from the aquifer.
One thing that is clear from the Pinelands Commission’s Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer Study is that pumping from wells can alter wetlands and intermittent ponds in profound ways. The $5.5 million dollar study looked at what ecological changes could be expected from pumping.
The findings are startling. Both stream flows and wetlands are affected by nearby wells. However, water levels in wetlands are even more sensitive to both groundwater withdrawal rate and well locations than stream flows are. This means that changes in stream flow as a result of pumping are only a part of the story and not the biggest part.
For example, at the sub-watershed scale, by removing just 10% of the water that gets into the aquifer from rain and snow, it is expected that almost 10% of the wetlands will dry up. Yet changes in stream flow would largely go unnoticed. Removing 30% of recharge is expected to result in about 30% of the sub-watershed’s wetlands drying up, and reductions in stream flow become more apparent.
Depending on the local aquifer properties, wells can lower the water table and associated wetlands for thousands of feet in all directions around a well. If the rate of pumping is high enough, streams within the influence of the well can dry up in a short period of time. This is particularly true in September when streams are typically at their lowest flows. It is estimated that there are over 1,000 high-capacity wells in the aquifer, with yields up to 4,500 gallons per minute. The impact of these and future wells on the Pinelands needs to be considered and addressed.
With proper planning and regulatory oversight, it is possible to balance the water needs of both people and the ecosystem within the Pinelands. The first piece of water supply planning is already in place, the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP). The Pinelands Commission has been using the CMP to minimize gross impacts from groundwater withdrawals in some situations. However, the CMP is focused on managing the use of land. It therefore has its limits with regards to managing water withdrawals. Maintaining sufficient water levels in the aquifer and streams to meet ecological needs, coupled with growing demands for more water means that the Pinelands Commission will need to take a more aggressive role in critically reviewing future water allocation proposals, and say No when necessary to protect the Pinelands.
Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA) proposes that the Pinelands Commission and the NJ Department of Environmental Protection adopt and apply the following regulatory thresholds for all new or increased allocation requests.
1. Kirkwood-Cohansey only as Last Resort
New or increased allocations from the Kirkwood-Cohansey, or withdrawals that will affect the Kirkwood-Cohansey, should only be approved if there are no alternative sources for a demonstrated need. Alternative sources include, at a minimum, confined aquifers, bulk purchases from non-Kirkwood-Cohansey sources, conjunctive uses and water conservation.
2. Set a Protective Threshold at a “Regional” or Watershed Scale
The agencies should not permit any new or increased allocation that, individually or cumulatively with other current or pending allocations, would exceed a stated threshold at the watershed level. If the aquifer is already stressed at the watershed level, no additional withdrawals should be allowed in the watershed. If the aquifer can be used without exceeding a regional threshold, then a potential applicant should be required to show that what is being proposed will not exceed the regional threshold. Without a watershed threshold there will not be any long-term protection of water sensitive ecosystems since the current state water allocation process does not regulate cumulative impacts on a regional scale. This system is failing to protect the Pinelands as there are a number of watersheds that are currently overstressed from too many groundwater withdrawals, and yet the Commission and DEP continue to allow more groundwater to be withdrawn from these areas
3. Set a Protective Threshold at the Local Scale to Protect Wetlands
The agencies should also set a threshold on anticipated impacts to wetlands due to a new or increased allocation. This would be the local threshold determination. As noted above, since wetlands are more sensitive to groundwater withdrawals than stream flow, by focusing on protecting wetlands from local groundwater withdrawals, stream flows will benefit as a consequence.
4. Require Conservation Measures with All New or Increased Allocations
The DEP and Pinelands Commission should require quantifiable water conservation measures in the same sub-watershed to offset expected impacts of new and increased withdrawals. This is already a requirement of the Pinelands regulations, but it has never been enforced.
The agencies should adopt incentives into the allocation process, so water purveyors can withdraw more water if they adopt proven and sustainable water conservation measures.
5. Monitor Impacts and Reduce Withdrawals Where Impacts Are Greater Than Expected
The DEP and Pinelands Commission should require recipients of allocations to monitor and report streamflow and water table changes going forward, and to report the results to the agencies and the public.
The state agencies should set a regulatory trigger that suspends new or increased allocations, or reduces existing allocation limits, in any watershed where the monitoring data shows a trend of increasingly severe impacts of current withdrawals beyond the expected impacts on which the allocation was based.
Protecting the Quality of the Water
The DEP and Pinelands Commission rules include a variety of measures aimed at protecting water quality from the effects of development, agricultural runoff and chemical spills. These rules have surely brought great benefits, but they have also proven to need reforms in light of experience showing that the waters of the Kirkwood-Cohansey and the streams and wetlands it feeds are suffering real harms to water quality due to human activities. These reforms are specifically aimed at one of the most important types of non-point source contamination: nutrients. Natural levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Pinelands are extremely low – that’s a lot of what makes the Pine Barrens the way it is, a haven for plants and wildlife that are adapted to its naturally acidic, low-nutrient conditions.
1. Watershed-Based Growth Management
The Governor must institute a program of watershed-based growth management aimed at dramatically reducing the amount of nutrients. This program must:
Create science-based nutrient and water quality performance standards for new development in all parts of the watershed and the marine waters sufficient to achieve the restoration goal.
a. Require individual development actions to meet these performance standards. The program should enable new development to meet performance standards in part through retrofitting existing development to reduce its nutrient inputs.
b. Require all levels of government (state, regional, county and municipal) to take a watershed perspective that is protective of the ecosystem in their planning and permitting actions.
c. Revise municipal zoning, CAFRA rules, the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan and Wastewater Management Plans to meet the watershed-based performance standards, retain remaining natural lands, and direct new development into established communities.
2. Immediate Action Based on Existing Authorities
The State, Pinelands Commission and Municipalities must use the stormwater rules, Pinelands regulations, and local ordinances to require that new development use low-impact development techniques that reduce the volume of stormwater and reduce nutrient inputs (rather than control only the rate of stormwater flows and remove only sediments). Such techniques should include:
- Maintain the natural topography, vegetation and soil structure on both a watershed and site specific scale.
- Convert no more than 25 percent of a lot, to a maximum of 500 sq. ft., from native vegetation to turf or other maintained landscaping.
- Reduce or cease the practice of collecting and concentrating stormwater into centralized basins.
- Require compact development lay-outs.
- Preserve riparian buffers.
- Minimize impervious surface area.
- Encourage rain gardens.
- Create a non-native vegetation/turf replacement incentive program for existing homeowners.
The Governor should accelerate the funding and implementation of restoration projects that:
- Restore, maintain and expand stream and bay buffers.
- Repair and retrofit poorly functioning stormwater basins and systems.
The State needs to revise the Residential Site Improvement Standards to include narrower street widths and narrower pavements, reduce parking lot requirements, and allow for shared parking. The State and Municipalities should require continuing education in low impact development for members of land use boards, professionals, and consultants.
3. Regulation Reforms
State agencies must revise their regulations, including:
- The Pinelands Commission should amend the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, and the State should amend the CAFRA rules to require the protection of native vegetation and prohibit the alteration of natural soils during construction and maintenance activities.
- The State and Municipalities should incorporate the impervious cover limits of the CAFRA rules into the Water Quality Management Planning regulations, the Wastewater Management Plan, and local zoning ordinances.
- The State and Municipalities should implement the ground and surface water quality standard of 2 parts per million of nitrate in all development reviews and permitting.
- The State must adopt the pending proposed amendments to the Surface Water Quality Standards that extend the nutrient narrative criterion to marine.