One of the most important decisions facing New Jersey when it comes to clean water is in front of the Legislature now. When our legislators vote on a dangerous bill to delay the implementation of and weaken important Water Quality Management Planning rules (WQMPs) they can choose to side with polluters, developers, and the Christie administration in rolling back vital protections for clean water. Or they can stand up to protect our water and thousands of acres of open space, while preventing flooding and channeling growth to appropriate areas. This legislation is the biggest attack on clean water by the New Jersey Legislature in years and will undo decades of progress in cleaning up and protecting our waterways.
The Legislature is fulfilling the builder’s wish list just in time for the holiday season by passing this bill. This bill is especially dangerous because it not only delays the rules but removes critical protections for water quality and creates loopholes for developers. The legislation would:
- Allow developers to submit site-specific requests for sewer service that the DEP will be under a deadline to review. These requests could be submitted before plans are finalized so new sewer service would be granted based on older mapping, potentially opening up environmentally sensitive areas to new development. There would be no public hearing or public comment period on these requests. The requests do not have to be consistent with the rules a “net environmental benefit” can be fulfilled. Developers will do mitigation projects on other sites in order to receive approvals to develop in sensitive areas
- Allow developments in sewer service areas even if there is no treatment capacity
- Delay implementation of county water quality management plans for 6 months. When the plans are due, counties would not be required to submit septic standards, as currently required. The Private Well Testing Act shows that one third of homes with well and septic systems on the property show signs of pollution. DEP would be able to grant amendments and hook ups with these partial plans in place, potentially granting permits that would violate clean water laws
-Allows for developments in areas without the water availability to service the additional structures. Also allows for development in areas that already have combined sewer overflow problems, making the pollution problem worse
- Take away authority and undermine wastewater management planning in the Highlands and Pinelands regions
This legislation puts more pollution into Barnegat Bay as the bill would add 35,000 acres back into sewer service in Ocean County. In the past we have seen developers try to build 1,000 units next to drinking water reservoirs based on outdated sewer maps. Adopting updated maps as soon as possible is critical to preserving water quality across the state.
Environmental advocates have been working for over 15 years to get these regulations in place despite major push back from developers and special interests. In 2010, Governor Corzine vetoed a similar bill in his final hours in office after the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) publically opposed the legislation. In 1988, the EPA asked New Jersey to roll back sewer service areas by 1994 and has provided the state with $3 million in grant funding to update the plans. More than a decade later, Governor Christie and the Legislature want to roll back and weaken the rules.
Builders and developers oppose the WQMP rules because they require proper environmental analysis and planning for sewer extensions. The rules prevent high-density development in environmentally sensitive areas by removing 300,000 acres from sewer service that contain high-value environmental resources such as threatened and endangered species habitat, contiguous forests, and aquifer recharge areas. The rules make sure there is enough water for the developments to go forward. For the first time, the WQMP rules would regulate development on septics, which is the major source of groundwater pollution in rural parts of New Jersey. The rules also focus growth back into urban areas, which would revitalize urban areas and save taxpayer dollars by avoiding wasteful spending on expensive infrastructure in environmentally-sensitive areas.
Counties have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement these rules but the Governor and Legislature are folding to developers over protecting our drinking water. They are trying to push sewers and high density development into environmentally sensitive areas, even against the wishes of the county in some areas. Monmouth and Middlesex have both been working to roll back sewer services to preserve farmlands above reservoirs and now the administration and Legislature is working against their wishes.
This is the modern equivalent of Marie Antoinette, except instead of “let them eat cake” it is “make them drink sewage.” Currently, seventy-seven percent of New Jersey’s waterways do not meet all uses – drinking, swimming, and fishing – under the Clean Water Act and this legislation will make the problem worse. Ultimately this will cost tax payers in the end as treatment plants can cost as much as $200 million per facility. Instead our Legislators should stand up to developers and put public health, drinking water quality, and environmental protections first.