Pinelands Groundwater Study




Date: 031012

By Kirk Moore, Asbury Park Press, 10/11/03

Pemberton Township - A long-anticipated $5.5 million study of
underground water in the Kirkwood- Cohansey aquifer can finally go
ahead after the state Pinelands Commission agreed to start joint
research with Rutgers University and other state and federal agencies.

The vote on one of the biggest government-funded Pinelands water
science programs in a generation came late Thursday night here, after
a public hearing and detailed wrangling over exact wording of the

While some commissioners and environmental groups wanted to stress
the ecological aspect of the mission, other commissioners and
builders' groups sought a guarantee that the study will provide
answers for how much public water supply can be pulled out of the
saturated sands, especially in Atlantic and Cape May counties.

After a brief impasse, all 11 commissioners present agreed to have
annual reports from John Stokes, their executive director, on how the
scientific task force is helping to find water-supply answers.

The New Jersey Builders Association and Builders League of South
Jersey asked to have the project work plan restructured, with a clear
goal of determining "if there is enough water to supply needs," said
John Hooper of the builders' league.

Builders in three high-growth Atlantic County towns were hit with a
state moratorium on new housing approvals last year. The McGreevey
administration justified its development slowdown by citing the 2002
drought and water-supply concerns. Population growth was putting too
much demand on wells, the state contended. But local complaints about
development, traffic and growing public school costs put political
pressure on Trenton, too.

"I think they still missed an opportunity to look at what the water
supply is down there," said Richard J. Hoff Jr., a lawyer who spoke
for the builders' groups. Developers say the aquifer project should
employ more hydrologists to look at water supply projections, as the
U.S. Geological Survey has been doing in Ocean and Cape May counties.

Pressure began building on the commission in August, when the New
Jersey Builders Association questioned why a draft Kirkwood-Cohansey
work plan did not focus more on water supply. Last month, former state
Sen. John C. Gibson, a Cape May County Republican who sponsored a 2001
law funding the study, told the commission his main point was to find
out how much water could be used without altering the Pinelands

Thursday night's Pinelands Commission hearing centered on "where the
focal point of this research should be," said Emile DeVito, a
scientist with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. In DeVito's
view, "this law isn't telling us to make the decision (on water-supply
questions). This is more of an ecological study, rather than a water-
supply study."

Geologists describe the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer as water-saturated
layers of sand and gravel, ranging at depths just below ground surface
to several hundred feet deep. The aquifer underlies the Pinelands, and
protecting its water quality is a major goal of the 1979 state
Pinelands Protection Act, which created a regional zoning plan
encompassing more than a fifth of the state's land mass in seven

Conservationists worry that increasing demand on ground water will
dry up Pinelands marshes and lower river levels, and say a full
understanding of how much water is needed to keep the ecosystem
running is needed. While Gibson's legislation sought to find those
answers, builders felt the direction of the study veers too far toward
studying wetlands rather than water supply, Hooper said.

"Everyone thinks we're trying to find ways to draw water out of the
aquifer" to justify additional development in the Pinelands and
coastal towns, Hooper said. But builders think there is not enough
money set aside to determine how much water will be available for
today's population growth, he said.

Pinelands Commissioner Stephen V. Lee III offered one option of
holding back a final $800,000 in funding until commissioners are
satisfied the study addresses water-supply issues.

But executive director Stokes urged the commissioners not to hold
other agencies hostage to a possible funding cutoff. Those partners
include the state Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service. Under inter-agency contracts, "money won't be
paid if products (scientific reports) aren't forthcoming," said Robert
Zampella, the commission's chief scientist.

Stokes promised he will make sure the effort provides "key
hydrological and ecological information" so water supply officials can
balance community needs with the region's environment. The
commissioners unanimously accepted that pledge. It also seemed to
satisfy environmental advocates, who contend that data from the
project will meet everyone's needs.

Money from the National Park Service, universities and conservation
groups financed water research in the 1960s and '70s that still frames
environmental policy and popular images of the Pinelands. Back then,
New Jerseyans who remembered a brutal 1964-65 drought could read
newspaper stories telling how the Pinelands hold an estimated 17
trillion gallons of pure water in its sandy soils.

The new Kirkwood-Cohansey study - an idea that started at the
Pinelands Commission back in the late 1980s - could be the next wave
for hydrologists and other water scientists, said Richard Bizub, an
environmental specialist who works with the Pinelands Preservation
Alliance, an environmental group.

As the Pinelands study starts up, a statewide water supply plan
revision is already under way after the 2002 drought. Meanwhile,
southern New Jersey counties are looking at creative sources, such as
wastewater recycling and surface reservoirs, to reduce their
dependence on ground water, Bizub said.

"This is really a hydrologist's dream," Bizub said. "If $5.5 million
gets spent, and nothing comes out of it...I wouldn't want to be in
front of the (Legislature's) oversight committee."