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Editorial: N.J. needs a water plan, or it may be tears that will flow

Smart companies (and states) make long-range plans based on the most accurate data available. But New Jersey's real estate and home-building industries, the state's water utilities and, indeed, any N.J. company that depends on a reliable water supply can't do that right now. The Statewide Water Supply Plan — a document that details where the water for New Jersey's future is and is not — has not been updated since 1996, despite a state statute requiring that an updated report be provided every five years.

Certainly, the Department of Environmental Protection has been working on an update. But, as Rutgers professor and former DEP official Daniel J. Van Abs said in a Feb. 7 column for NJSpotlight, a new draft plan was “last seen” in 2012, when it was presented to the Water Supply Advisory Council — a panel of water company officials, academic scientists and various nonprofits that advises the DEP on water issues. Since then, nothing has happened.

The DEP says it is still collecting data, but Van Abs and others believe Gov. Chris Christie is sitting on the report because the news is not likely to be good. Their theory is that an updated report could stymie development in the state, and the Christie administration does not want to be bound by it.

N.J.'s water users need to know what regions are facing shortages and what regions have an abundance.

We can’t quibble with any desire by Christie to avoid limiting development in the state unnecessarily. But data are data, and economic and political history is rife with examples of industries and governments that paid heavy prices for ignoring inconvenient data. For better or worse, New Jersey’s water users — which, of course, is everyone — need to know what regions of the state are facing water shortages and what regions have an abundance of water, so that the limited resource can be managed and allocated effectively.

Some North Jersey counties faced numerous drought warnings and watches in 2016. In coastal South Jersey, saltwater intrusion in drinking-water wells could someday stymie the burgeoning Shore tourism economy. Meanwhile, New Jersey’s water utilities have been buying and privatizing public waterworks around the state in an effort to secure future water supplies.

The stakes are high. There will be winners and losers in this process. Think “Chinatown,” the 1974 movie about Los Angeles water wars in the 1930s. But today in New Jersey, the lack of an updated water-supply plan and a coordinated strategy based on accurate data hinders long-range infrastructure planning, effective drought management, sensible allocation of water resources and needed conservation measures.

Trust us: Avoiding reality is never a good plan.

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