Southern New Jersey may soon find not a drop to drink Wells are drying up

governments can't agree on what to do about it.

January 17, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

It is called a "ring of crisis."

This ring's darkened boundaries mark a huge and populous area within which southern New Jersey residents are drinking and flushing and lawn-watering and car-washing and bathing themselves to death.

They are sucking their water wells dry.

And they know it.

What they don't know -- or, at least, don't agree on -- is what to do about it.

Potential solutions abound. But each one is costly.

State officials first tried forcing cuts in water usage. A court said they couldn't do that.

Then they gave the go-ahead for construction of a huge pipeline to pump water into southern New Jersey. But, though pipes are being installed, communities have not volunteered to use them.

Finally, they tried to force communities to put back into the ground some of the water they took from it. But a court questioned that, too, so the officials withdrew the plan.

Hands tied, the administration of Gov. James J. Florio now is turning to that most democratic but least conclusive form of governmental problem-solving: public hearings.

"So now, we're going to say [to communities], 'Your wells are going to go dry. What do you want us to do about it?' " said Richard Kropp, chief of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Energy's water allocation bureau.

What they want remains to be seen.

Unlike Western states, which have land so dry that they look for water hundreds of miles beyond their borders, New Jersey has an abundance of water. But it also has an abundance of politicians. And so, the problem persists.

It is this: Most southern New Jersey residents get their water from something called the Potomac-Raritan-Magothy Aquifer, a natural, underground, tube-like formation that runs from Long Island to North Carolina and has been collecting water for millions of years. During the past hundred or so, utility companies and townships have drilled well after well into the aquifer, pumping millions of gallons to South Jersey's burgeoning population.

Although the aquifer still contains plenty of water, it is not easily accessible and not always safe to drink. That's because the water level is too low -- so low that, every day, nearly 80 million gallons of water is pulled into the aquifer, about half of that from the adjacent Delaware River, as residents pump water out. Some of the water appears to be leaking in from other aquifers and could deplete those supplies, Kropp said.

Sometimes, the river contains saltwater, which flows from Delaware Bay and cannot be treated and purified for safe drinking. So wells have to be shut down.

Sometimes, the Delaware River is contaminated with chemicals from the aging industries along its banks. When the aquifer contained more water, communities could avoid pumping contaminated water, officials said. Now, that's not so easy.

The problem intensifies each year as the level of water in the aquifer drops an additional two feet. At the turn of the century, the water level in the aquifer was so high that it poured water into the Delaware River. In 1983, it was 80 feet below sea level, causing the Delaware to pour into the aquifer. The water now is 100 feet below sea level and dropping, according to the DEPE.

That brings up another problem. The water stored at lower levels has been in the aquifer longer. In some areas, the level is so low that some community wells have reached ancient sea water, millions of years old and containing too much sodium and chloride, Kropp said.

The state has tried two approaches. One -- an attempt to limit water usage -- fell flat on its face when municipalities won a lawsuit blocking its implementation. The other -- a pipeline from the Delaware River -- is faring only slightly better, Kropp acknowledged.

New Jersey-American Water Co., a private firm that draws water from the aquifer for customers in 35 communities, has begun to lay pipes for the $136 million Tri-County Water Supply Project. The way the project was envisioned, water would be pulled in from the Delaware at Cinnaminson, treated at a plant in Delran and funneled to businesses and households throughout Camden, Burlington and Gloucester Counties. When approved in 1988, the pipeline was expected to pump 100 million gallons of water a day.

So far, not one municipality has signed up to buy water from the plant, and plans have been downgraded -- by four-fifths -- to a pumping capacity of 20 million gallons a day for New Jersey-American's current customers only, said company spokesman Michael J. Chern.

While plans call for the pipeline to extend into three parts of Gloucester County, no customers have agreed to buy water there, Chern said, so "the pipeline may actually end in Camden County."

Chern and Kropp said that, because the state was prohibited from enforcing water-use reductions, most municipal officials see no reason to buy into a pipeline that would cost them more than existing wells do, forcing an increase in fees. Some towns could tap into other aquifers, which haven't been depleted, or build their own plants along the Delaware. Kropp said such a separatist approach would be more expensive than the pipeline, but the option allows municipalities to postpone the hard decision.

"Unfortunately, when you're at the municipal level and you have limited resources, you go for the biggest problem today," Kropp said.

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