Water officials root for rain and weigh drought warning, as conditions worsen

By: - August 19, 2022 1:14 pm

New Jersey environmental officials are monitoring 45 harmful algal blooms around the state. The blooms, which thrive in hot temperatures, threaten drinking water and signal worsening drought conditions. (Photo courtesy of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection)

Environmental officials who met Friday to assess New Jersey’s worsening drought conditions said rain is the state’s best hope to avoid moving from a drought watch to a warning.

But they’re monitoring harmful algal blooms and other signs of environmental distress to determine if a warning is warranted.

Members of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s water supply advisory council even halfway rooted for a tropical storm to reinvigorate the state’s water supply, which has dipped so low officials earlier this month declared New Jersey’s first drought watch since 2016.

New Jersey gets, on average, an inch of rain a week, but the state needs far more than that to emerge from the current drought watch, said Steven Domber of the state’s water supply and geosciences division.

Rain is in the forecast for Monday.

“We don’t want a hurricane, although that would help in some cases, but it causes other problems,” Domber said. “There’s no recommendation at this point to go beyond a watch. But is that possible? Absolutely. It’s really going depend on how much rain we get in the next week, or whether there’s a tropical storm of some kind that comes up from the Atlantic.”

Under a drought watch, the state asks the public to voluntarily conserve water and water officials monitor water supply. A warning would prompt the environmental protection commissioner to order water suppliers to more tightly manage supply and urge the public to use water sparingly, while a drought emergency would mandate water conservation.

Suburban lawn watering is one of the bigger drains on the state’s water supply, Domber said.

One sign of worsening conditions is harmful algal blooms, which thrive in hot temperatures and can threaten drinking water supply, Domber said. They now number 45 statewide, approaching the state’s peak of 47, he added.

That, council member Jennifer Coffey said, adds some urgency to the debate about whether to bump up to a drought warning.

“Doing that maybe a little sooner than we would have thought about doing it maybe 10 years ago might be the prudent thing to do, because we don’t know when we’re going to get water,” said Coffey, who heads the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions. “It could be a hot September as well.”

State environmental officials have recorded 45 algal blooms around the state, which are a sign of concerning drought conditions. (Courtesy of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection)

Several council members spoke up on behalf of farmers and golf course owners.

“For mostly grain crops and hay, the drought started at like the worst time for a crop. It’s when the pollens drop and the ears are filling that the dry weather really affects the yield, so we’ll have to see what happens with that,”  said council member Dave Specca, a Burlington County farmer who also works at Rutgers University’s EcoComplex. “We definitely could use some rain.”

Council member Jay Long, a golf course superintendent for five Mercer County golf courses, said many clubs are running out of water to maintain courses, a growing concern as fall seeding season approaches.

“If we don’t get these timely rains, we really are going to be in trouble,” Long said.

The public can check statewide drought indicators, reservoir levels, precipitation data, and more online here.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.