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Water Supply and the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer

Proposed changes could be published by November 2023.


New Jersey’s water supply faces several big challenges, from lead in drinking water, to widespread contamination with chemicals like PFOAs, to vulnerability to droughts. A major threat to the Pinelands is over-pumping of the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer. PPA is advocating for the Pinelands Commission and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to make changes to their rules to reverse over-pumping and ensure the aquifer is always used sustainably.

kirkwood cohansey and other aquifers of new jersey
Illustration shows the shallow Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer and other deeper south Jersey aquifers.
The Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer

The “surficial” Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer is right below our feet when in the Pinelands, as the sands that make up New Jersey’s outer coastal plain are full of water. This water supplies all the streams and wetlands of the Pinelands (and beyond). That means that when the aquifer is over-pumped for human uses, streams and wetlands are starved of water. The Aquifer is also a critical source of drinking water for residents and visitors to the Pinelands and the Jersey Shore. For more information and some great graphics, see Groundwater and Aquifers in the Pinelands.

Pinelands Commission Amendment Proposal

For decades we have pressed the Pinelands Commission to strengthen their rules and better protect the aquifer from excessive withdraws for human use.  The Pinelands Commission has proposed the following changes to the Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) to better protect the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer:

Read the proposed rule changes here.

In summary these changes are:

  • A minimum water level must be maintained to sustain essential Pinelands habitat. In the NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s (NJDEP) Water Supply Plan, the agency recommends withdrawing no more than 25% of this minimum volume, but the Commission proposes to restrict withdrawals further at just 20%.  The Commission justifies this 5% difference as a buffer against climate change, as well as the fact that the Commission does not regulate withdrawals for agriculture/horticulture.
  • All water use in New Jersey is subject to the NJDEP permitting process, but withdrawals in the Pinelands receive additional scrutiny. The Commission proposes increasing the range of wells within the K-C aquifer that would require approval based on their size (lowering the threshold from 100,000 gallons of water withdrawn per day to 50,000).
  • The Commission proposes a new paradigm for how water transfers can be calculated among the various subdivisions of the K-C aquifer. Although a single aquifer system is shared by most of the Pinelands, the land can be divided into two “basins” defined by which water body they flow into: the Atlantic Ocean or the Delaware Bay. The new rules would eliminate transfers of water between the two basins. These basins are further divided into different “HUC-11” areas defined by the US Geological Survey; the new rules would ensure that all existing withdrawals in a given HUC-11 would be included when considering an application for a new withdrawal.

We support all of these changes, but we are concerned about a few others as noted below:

  • Diversions of water for agricultural and horticultural uses continue to be exempt from these regulations. We believe that this categorization is overly broad, especially given the rise of new-technology operations within the agricultural and horticultural industries. Depending on how the Pinelands Commission handles applications for cannabis cultivation facilities, these water-intensive horticulture operations may experience much growth in the near future. As the Pinelands approaches buildout, and sea level rise pushes development pressure inland, the Commission needs to be prepared for conflicting demands on the aquifer. We urge the Commission to remove horticulture use from exemption to strict compliance with these new regulations.
  • Specifically, the draft amendment offers “prohibitive cost” as an acceptable loophole. Allowing this rationale opens the door for applicants to justify overburdening the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer simply because it is cheaper and easier. This lack of clarity around what defines a “viable” alternative fails to match the efforts in other areas of the draft language which attempt to reduce ambiguity to best protect the aquifer. This loophole could seriously undermine the new regulations unless the language is made tighter and more objective.
  • Among wells that will not be subject to the new standards are replacements of wells with at least 50,000 gallons of water per day—provided that the new well is the same depth and pump capacity, is from the same aquifer, and is within 100 feet of the existing well. We recommend adding that the new well must also be within the same HUC-11 watershed, since placing the well in a different watershed may present a different ecological impact.
How You Can Help

During the public comment period held in late 2022, the Pinelands Commission was notified of two major revision needs. Commission staff are currently working with NJ Department of Environmental Protection to address industry-specific and technical concerns, with changes significant enough to merit a full re-proposal of the rules. Given the current projected timeline, the public can expect to see the newly proposed rules in the April 3, 2023 edition of the NJ Register, on which they can make a public comment until June 2. If no other delays occur, we can expect to see the rules adopted and published on November 6, 2023.

If you have questions please contact Heidi Yeh, Policy Director at heidi@pinelandsalliance.org

See PPA’s policy recommendations below.  Each of these points has been studied and recommended by scientists working for DEP and the Pinelands Commission for the last several years, but the agencies have yet to make real changes in response to these findings.

Statewide Water Deficits

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) finally released the water supply plan titled New Jersey Water Supply Plan 2017-2022 on October 5, 2017.  It is the first revision to the 1996 Plan. By law the water supply plan should have been released before 2003.

The New Jersey Water Supply Management Act (Act) approved in 1981, recognizes that water resources are public assets that the State holds in trust for its citizens and requires that the state create a Water Supply Master Plan.  The Act entrusts the DEP with primary responsibility to ensure that New Jersey can cope with all foreseeable water needs and prescribes that DEP develop and periodically update the New Jersey Statewide Water Supply Plan.

The recently released Plan estimates the amount of water that was withdrawn from each watershed in an effort to determine if there was sufficient remaining water to support future water supply withdrawals, suitable water quality, protect and maintain aquatic resources, and defer saltwater intrusion. If a watershed had ample remaining water to maintain these uses, that watershed was concluded to be in “surplus.” If a watershed did not possess ample water to maintain these uses, that watershed was concluded to be in “deficit.”

With regards to protecting natural resources, this Plan is slightly better at recognizing the needs of our natural resources than the 1996 Plan.  However, the Plan is really not a plan. It is more of a snapshot of existing conditions, with nebulous references to possible solutions. This is unfortunate since the Plan identifies a number of watersheds that are already in a deficit or will be shortly. 

The Plan groups the state’s 151 watersheds into 20 watershed management areas.  The Plan identifies that four (4) of the State’s watershed management areas as currently being stressed, with fifteen (15) more becoming stressed if authorized water permits are fully utilized.

However, the problem is actually much worse than noted in the Plan for two reasons. First, environmental impacts from ground water and surface water withdrawals occur at the watershed and subwatershed scale. Even at the watershed scale (which is approximately 65 square miles in the Pinelands) the Plan identifies numerous watersheds that are stressed. Second, the fact that 15 watershed management areas will be stressed at fully authorized water allocations, indicates that DEP has allocated water beyond what is sustainable. And when it comes to withdrawals from the shallow aquifer and streams in stressed watersheds, the environment is the big loser!

According to the plan the following Pinelands watershed management areas are already stressed.

  • WMA 15 – Great Egg Harbor
  • WMA 17 – Maurice, Salem and Cohansey

However, at the watershed scale the plan identifies eight watersheds in the Pinelands (and other watersheds throughout the state) that have zero available water.  Also, if holders of water allocation permits were to use the maximum amount they are allowed, nineteen watersheds in the Pinelands would become stressed. Yet the DEP continues to grant additional water to new or existing users in these watersheds. There is nothing in the Plan that would prevent the DEP from continuing to allocate water from these watersheds.  This is not a sustainable practice. The Plan fails to recognize the unique role of the Pinelands Commission in water supply planning. The Commission is tasked with managing growth within 56 municipalities of the New Jersey Pinelands through the CMP.  PPA is advocating for the Pinelands Commission to update the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) to prevent water in stressed watersheds from being allocated.

There is no discussion in the Plan that by law, ground and surface water can be exported up to 10-miles beyond the boundary of the Pinelands National Reserve. This means that water can be exported into Mercer, Middlesex and Monmouth Counties, the barrier islands from Mantoloking, Ocean County south to North Wildwood, Cape May County, and to the Delaware River in Camden County. Future water supply demands in this vast area will place greater stress on Pinelands aquifers.

The Plan notes that per capita potable water use has decreased from 155 gallons per day per person in 1990 to 125 gallons per day in 2015. The savings is not due to any major policy decisions by NJDEP, but to more efficient indoor plumbing fixtures such as toilet, clothes washers, showerheads, and faucets. Savings in indoor water use is being overshadowed by the vast increase from outdoor water use, primarily lawn watering. As much as one-third of all potable water is lost during any given month in the summer. There is a lack of will of our state and local regulators to rein in excessive outdoor water use. The Plan merely recycles the water conservation element of the 1996 Plan. The Plan is silent on any meaningful policy recommendations regarding outdoor water use.

If you have any questions, please contact Rhyan Grech, Policy Advocate, rhyang@pinelandsalliance.org or (609) 859-8860 ext. 122.

PPA’s Policy Recommendations


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.

Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA) proposes that both agencies adopt and apply the following three-tiered regulatory thresholds to all Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer allocation requests. These thresholds derive from the state’s Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer Study and are based on biological effects and indicators.

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” WATERSHED SCALE:The agencies should not permit any new or increased allocation that, individually or cumulatively with other current or pending allocations, would exceed stated percentages of recharge at the watershed level.

We specifically recommend the following thresholds be applied either at the HUC-14 scale or by Pinelands CMP Management Area within each municipality:

  • No withdrawals permitted in the Pinelands Preservation Area, unless in a Pinelands Village as addressed below.
  • Do not exceed 5 percent of recharge for the defined area in which the withdrawal would take place, when all or part of the area is in the Pinelands Preservation, Forest Management or Rural Development Areas, or a Pinelands Village within the Preservation Area.
  • Do not exceed 15 percent total withdrawal as a percentage of recharge, when the area is entirely in Pinelands Regional Growth Areas, Pinelands Towns, Pinelands Village not within the Preservation Area, or a Military and Federal Installation area.

Withdrawing 5 percent of recharge from the Kirkwood-Cohansey has been found by the Pinelands Commission to be associated with alteration of ecological metrics such as changes in wetland class and conversion of wetlands to uplands. Withdrawing 15 percent of recharge is associated with more significant impacts to stream flow in addition to wetland impacts.

The agencies should also set a threshold on anticipated impacts to wetlands due to a new or increased allocation.

PPA specifically recommends the adoption of the following thresholds based on impacts to wetlands, which can be evaluated using either or both of the “Theim” or the “Gompertz” equation models analyzed in the Kirkwood-Cohansey Study:

  • No more than a 15cm drawdown of wetlands across 10 percent of total wetland area within the relevant HUC-14, when the when the HUC-14 lies all or in part in the Pinelands Preservation, Forest Management or Rural Development Areas,
  • No more than a 15cm drawdown of wetlands across 15 percent of total wetland area within a HUC-14, when the HUC-14 lies entirely in Pinelands Regional Growth Areas, Pinelands Towns or a Military and Federal Installation area.

A drawdown level of 15cm is a reasonable threshold, as this level of drawdown has been shown in studies conducted by the Pinelands Commission to impact wetland communities, particularly populations of a federally endangered wetland plant species, Helonias bullata (swamp pink). An extent of 10 percent of total wetland area experiencing 15cm of drawdown is a reasonable threshold in ecologically sensitive areas because this is the approximate value associated with a 5 percent withdrawal:recharge ratio. A 5 percent withdrawal: recharge ratio has been shown by the Pinelands Commission to be associated with changes in ecological metrics such as changes in wetland class and conversion of wetlands to uplands.

An extent of 15 percent of total wetland area experiencing 15cm of drawdown is a reasonable threshold in more developed (or developable, as per Pinelands regulations) areas, as this value is correlated with a 10 percent withdrawal:recharge ratio. And, as shown by the Pinelands Commission, a 10 percent withdrawal:recharge ratio has more significant impacts on stream flow in addition to wetland impacts.

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.

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.


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.

Child drinking fresh water from the Kirkwood Cohansey aquifer.
The Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer is a source of drinking water for southern New Jersey residents.

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.

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.
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.

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.

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.


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.

How You Can Help

Email, write or call the Pinelands Commission and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and ask them to move forward on reforms to their water allocation rules as stated above.

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