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Weakened Highlands Plan Threatens Water Supply

Date : Wed, 04 Jun 2008 16:32:43 -0400

Press Release

For Immediate Release:
Contacts: Julia Somers, Executive Director, NJ Highlands Coalition

June 4, 2008

973-588-7190 (office), 973-525-2768 (cell)

Weakened Highlands Plan Threatens Water Supply More Development in Drinking Water Deficit Areas; Paving Prime Ground Water Recharge Areas; and Urban Density Development on Farmland All Allowed Under Highlands Plan

Trenton, NJ: Today, leaders of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition expressed serious concern over the future of the drinking water supplies that serve 5.4 million residents of New Jersey. The Highlands Act promised that drinking water was to be protected by the long anticipated Regional Master Plan (RMP). The proposed and weakened plan, currently being debated by the Highlands Council, may be adopted as early as July 17th.

“Endangering the health and well-being of 5.4 million water users was certainly not the intention of the 2004 Highlands Act,” stated Julia Somers, Executive Director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition. “Unless the Highlands Council fixes the Plan to prevent development in water deficit and prime ground water recharge areas, private and municipal wells will continue to dry up across the region, and water users outside of the Highlands cannot be guaranteed a future supply of the clean and plentiful drinking water.”

Despite the objections of the public, science professionals and environmental organizations, the Highlands Council continues to propose new, scientifically indefensible policies in a weakened plan, including:

* to permit increased water use and consumption in water deficit sub-watersheds, despite economic and public health concerns because of more frequently occurring droughts;

* to pave 15% to 45% of lands scientifically recognized as prime ground water recharge areas in all zones throughout the Highlands, including areas where it is currently prohibited;

* to encourage residential developments at urban densities in New Jersey’s best agricultural areas; and

* to allow counties to adopt weakened ground water nitrate standards, well below the scientific thresholds that the Highlands Council itself has determined will degrade existing water quality.

Bill Kibler, Executive Director of the South Branch Water Association, explained, “Suggesting that we can develop our way out of water deficits sounds like business as usual in New Jersey. For years our leaders in Trenton tried to buy our way out of financial deficits by spending more and borrowing against our future, resulting in the current budget crisis. Now, the suggestion is to build our way out of water deficits by allowing more development and gambling with our children’s water supply. Dollars or water, a bad idea is a bad idea.”

The Highlands Council has improved parts of the RMP, e.g. improvements to its critical habitat policies and conformance standards (many of them reflecting the comments of the NJ Highlands Coalition and its members) and making the plan more readable. However, Somers noted that in large part, the Highlands Council continues to weaken the Plan by ignoring its highly developed scientific data in favor of political and special interest driven policies.

"It's not the 'Highlands Economic Growth Damage Control Act' but the 'Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act'. The Council can't replace legislative intent to protect half the state's water supplies with its own agenda to promote overdevelopment. We need a midcourse correction now because our state can't afford to deplete and pollute our water, build on prime farmland and promote high density development in the wrong places," quipped Dave Pringle, Campaign Director, New Jersey Environmental Federation.

“Instead of moving forward and strengthening the RMP based on public comments and sound science, the Plan is racing backwards, allowing for more overdevelopment, more sprawl and more pollution in our water ways,” stated Jeff Tittel Director NJ Sierra Club.

The Council is proposing weakening the Highlands Plan and threatening drinking water by:

* Allowing More Development in Water Deficit Areas – Of the 183 sub-watersheds in the Highlands Region, over 110 have been scientifically shown to be incapable of sustainably supplying drinking water over the long term to support continuing development. Known as deficit sub-watersheds, the Highlands Council is proposing to allow development to continue in these deficit areas, even those determined to be in a critical deficit, with the condition that a developer implements a mitigation project to return up to 200% of the water used back to the ground and aquifer. Of the drinking water deficits, some are small and could be mitigated with established procedures, while others have substantial deficits. Mitigation, to address deficits of these magnitudes is unprecedented in New Jersey. The New Jersey Highlands Coalition is concerned about potentially devastating impacts on the quantity and quality of groundwater if untested mitigation projects were to fail or were not properly monitored and maintained over the long term, resulting in more pollution and more flooding. Coupled with the current pattern of more persistent and critical droughts, the potential threat to the public demands policies that safeguard the public’s safety over those that favor development interests.

* Development in Prime Ground Water Recharge Areas – Impervious surfaces (pavement, roofs, compacted soils, etc.) directly impact water quality and quantity, increasing the levels of pollutants in water, creating rapid runoff resulting in flooding, and preventing the infiltration of rainwater to replenish the groundwater aquifers that supply wells. In earlier drafts of the RMP, the Council prohibited all development in the environmentally sensitive zone of the Prime Ground Water Recharge Areas in the Highlands. Instead of maintaining this strict standard necessary to protect ground water quality and quantity, the Council has weakened the plan by proposing to allow up to 45% percent of Prime Ground Water Recharge Areas to be paved over - their extraordinary resource values destroyed forever. Counter to the mandates of the Act, this policy will degrade well-water quality and quantity for Highlands residents, most particularly within the Existing Community Zone

* Urban Density, Residential Development on Farmland – Known as clustering, the Highlands Council will be encouraging residential developments at urban density levels in the Highlands’ best agricultural areas. Despite overwhelming objections from the public, the Council’s clustering provisions will permit residential development on the Highlands most productive agricultural soils, permanently reducing agricultural yields in the Highlands and a lifestyle and landscape the Act mandates that the Council protect. The Council must maintain agricultural viability by transferring development rights into more appropriate areas and not permit more development and fragmentation of our best farmlands.

* Allowing Counties to Weaken the Council’s Science-based and Health Protective Septic Effluent Nitrate Limits –The Council has proposed that Planning Area towns that have not opted into the Regional Plan retain the option to adopt weaker nitrate standards than those developed by the Highlands Council for the region, rather than relying on the Councils up-to-date scientific data. Use of a weaker 2 mg/liter standard, which is less protective of public health, will directly impact drinking water quality and degradation from the Council’s own science-based standards. Further, the lower standard would permit greater density of water-consuming development to take place, some of which are already in water supply deficit. Not only would the Council be tossing aside its own protective Highlands-wide “blind-to-the-line” planning for Preservation and Planning Areas that utilized the most current science-based data, it will result in an unintended, Plan-defeating disincentive for Planning Areas communities to conform.

The NJ Highlands Coalition is made up of a diverse and effective group of organizations and individuals; small and large, local, regional, statewide and national; all working together to protect, enhance and restore the NJ Highlands


Becca Glenn, Program Assistant New Jersey Sierra Club

145 W. Hanover Street Trenton, NJ 08618

609-656-7612: phone

609-656-7618: fax

Received on 2008-06-04 16:52:52

New Jersey Sierra Club, 145 West Hanover St., Trenton, NJ 08618, USA
tel: 609 656 7612, fax 609 656 7618
or email Nicole Dallara, Outreach Coordinator, at

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