Water Policy and the Future of the Aquifer

Current rules are inadequate to protect the aquifer. NJ Department of Environmental Protection and Pinelands Commission must act now.


Creek and wetland in the New Jersey Pinelands.

Protection of the aquifer is key to protecting the Pinelands’ fragile wetlands and globally rare plant and animals species. © Bob Birdsall

Protecting the Quantity of Water

The NJ Department of Environmental Protection currently reviews all requests for allocations of water from the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer and other fresh water sources.  The thresholds the Department applies have proven inadequate to protect the aquifer from the cumulative and individual impacts of withdrawals on surface waters.  The Pinelands Commission is also charged with reviewing all allocation requests, but historically has not applied any specific thresholds to protect Pinelands resources from the impacts of removing water from the aquifer.

Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA) proposes that both agencies adopt and apply the following three-tiered regulatory thresholds to all Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer allocation requests.  These thresholds derive from the state’s Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer Study and are based on biological effects and indicators.

1 – Kirkwood-Cohansey Only As Last Resort

New or increased allocations from the Kirkwood-Cohansey, or withdrawals that will affect the Kirkwood-Cohansey, should only be approved if there are no alternative sources for a demonstrated need.  Alternative sources include, at a minimum, confined aquifers, bulk purchases from non-Kirkwood-Cohansey sources, conjunctive uses and water conservation.

2 – Set a Protective Threshold at a “Regional” Watershed Scale

The agencies should not permit any new or increased allocation that, individually or cumulatively with other current or pending allocations, would exceed stated percentages of recharge at the watershed level.

We specifically recommend the following thresholds be applied either at the HUC-14 scale or by Pinelands CMP Management Area within each municipality:

  • No withdrawals permitted in the Pinelands Preservation Area, unless in a Pinelands Village as addressed below.
  • Do not exceed 5 percent of recharge for the defined area in which the withdrawal would take place, when all or part of the area is in the Pinelands Preservation, Forest Management or Rural Development Areas, or a Pinelands Village within the Preservation Area.
  • Do not exceed 15 percent total withdrawal as a percentage of recharge, when the area is entirely in Pinelands Regional Growth Areas, Pinelands Towns, Pinelands Village not within the Preservation Area, or a Military and Federal Installation area.


Withdrawing 5 percent of recharge from the Kirkwood-Cohansey has been found by the Pinelands Commission to be associated with alteration of ecological metrics such as changes in wetland class and conversion of wetlands to uplands.  Withdrawing 15 percent of recharge is associated with more significant impacts to stream flow in addition to wetland impacts.

3 – Set a Protective Threshold at the Local Scale to Protect Wetlands

The agencies should also set a threshold on anticipated impacts to wetlands due to a new or increased allocation.

PPA specifically recommends the adoption of the following thresholds based on impacts to wetlands, which can be evaluated using either or both of the “Theim” or the “Gompertz” equation models analyzed in the Kirkwood-Cohansey Study:

  1. No more than a 15cm drawdown of wetlands across 10 percent of total wetland area within the relevant HUC-14, when the when the HUC-14 lies all or in part in the Pinelands Preservation, Forest Management or Rural Development Areas,
  2. No more than a 15cm drawdown of wetlands across 15 percent of total wetland area within a HUC-14, when the HUC-14 lies entirely in Pinelands Regional Growth Areas, Pinelands Towns or a Military and Federal Installation area.

A drawdown level of 15cm is a reasonable threshold, as this level of drawdown has been shown in studies conducted by the Pinelands Commission to impact wetland communities, particularly populations of a federally endangered wetland plant species, Helonias bullata (swamp pink).  An extent of 10 percent of total wetland area experiencing 15cm of drawdown is a reasonable threshold in ecologically sensitive areas because this is the approximate value associated with a 5 percent withdrawal:recharge ratio.  A 5 percent withdrawal: recharge ratio has been shown by the Pinelands Commission to be associated with changes in ecological metrics such as changes in wetland class and conversion of wetlands to uplands.

Current regulations have proven inadequate to protect the aquifer.

An extent of 15 percent of total wetland area experiencing 15cm of drawdown is a reasonable threshold in more developed (or developable, as per Pinelands regulations) areas, as this value is correlated with a 10 percent withdrawal:recharge ratio.  And, as shown by the Pinelands Commission, a 10 percent withdrawal:recharge ratio has more significant impacts on stream flow in addition to wetland impacts.

4 – Require Conservation Measures with All New or Increased Allocations

The DEP and Pinelands Commission should require quantifiable water conservation measures in the same sub-watershed to offset expected impacts of new and increased withdrawals.  This is already a requirement of the Pinelands regulations, but it has never been enforced.

The agencies should adopt incentives into the allocation process, so water purveyors can withdraw more water if they adopt proven and sustainable water conservation measures.

5 – Monitor Impacts and Reduce Withdrawals Where Impacts are Greater than Expected

The DEP and Pinelands Commission should require recipients of allocations to monitor and report streamflow and water table changes going forward, and to report the results to the agencies and the public.

The state agencies should set a regulatory trigger that suspends new or increased allocations, or reduces existing allocation limits, in any watershed where the monitoring data shows a trend of increasingly severe impacts of current withdrawals beyond the expected impacts on which the allocation was based.

Protecting the Quality of Water

The DEP and Pinelands Commission rules include a variety of measures aimed at protecting water quality from the effects of development, agricultural runoff and chemical spills.  These rules have surely brought great benefits, but they have also proven to need reforms in light of experience showing that the waters of the Kirkwood-Cohansey and the streams and wetlands it feeds are suffering real harms to water quality due to human activities.  These reforms are specifically aimed at one of the most important types of non-point source contamination: nutrients.  Natural levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in the Pinelands are extremely low – that’s a lot of what makes the Pine Barrens the way it is, a haven for plants and wildlife that are adapted to its naturally acidic, low-nutrient conditions.

1 – Watershed-Based Growth Management

Child drinking fresh water from the Kirkwood Cohansey aquifer.

The Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer is a source of drinking water for southern New Jersey residents.

The Governor must institute a program of watershed-based growth management aimed at dramatically reducing the amount of nutrients.  This program must:

  1. Create science-based nutrient and water quality performance standards for new development in all parts of the watershed and the marine waters sufficient to achieve the restoration goal.
  2. Require individual development actions to meet these performance standards.  The program should enable new development to meet performance standards in part through retrofitting existing development to reduce its nutrient inputs.
  3. Require all levels of government (state, regional, county and municipal) to take a watershed perspective that is protective of the ecosystem in their planning and permitting actions.
  4. Revise municipal zoning, CAFRA rules, the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan and Wastewater Management Plans to meet the watershed-based performance standards, retain remaining natural lands, and direct new development into established communities.

2 – Immediate Actions Based on Existing Authorities

The State, Pinelands Commission and Municipalities must use the stormwater rules, Pinelands regulations, and local ordinances to require that new development use low-impact development techniques that reduce the volume of stormwater and reduce nutrient inputs (rather than control only the rate of stormwater flows and remove only sediments).  Such techniques should include:

  • Maintain the natural topography, vegetation and soil structure on both a watershed and site specific scale.
  • Convert no more than 25 percent of a lot, to a maximum of 500 sq. ft., from native vegetation to turf or other maintained landscaping.
  • Reduce or cease the practice of collecting and concentrating stormwater into centralized basins.
  • Require compact development lay-outs.
  • Preserve riparian buffers.
  • Minimize impervious surface area.
  • Encourage rain gardens.
  • Create a non-native vegetation/turf replacement incentive program for existing homeowners.

The Governor should accelerate the funding and implementation of restoration projects that:

  • Restore, maintain and expand stream and bay buffers.
  • Repair and retrofit poorly functioning stormwater basins and systems.

The State needs to revise the Residential Site Improvement Standards to include narrower street widths and narrower pavements, reduce parking lot requirements, and allow for shared parking. The State and Municipalities should require continuing education in low impact development for members of land use boards, professionals, and consultants.

3 – Regulation Reforms

State agencies must revise their regulations, including:

  • The Pinelands Commission should amend the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, and the State should amend the CAFRA rules to require the protection of native vegetation and prohibit the alteration of natural soils during construction and maintenance activities.
  • The State and Municipalities should incorporate the impervious cover limits of the CAFRA rules into the Water Quality Management Planning regulations, the Wastewater Management Plan, and local zoning ordinances.
  • The State and Municipalities should implement the ground and surface water quality standard of 2 parts per million of nitrate in all development reviews and permitting.
  • The State must adopt the pending proposed amendments to the Surface Water Quality Standards that extend the nutrient narrative criterion to marine.