STONE HARBOR – In the year of COVID-19, water use, in Stone Harbor, increased to levels that spurred action by the borough. Stone Harbor, like communities throughout the state’s coastal plain, is given an annual and monthly allocation by the state, setting limits on the amount of water that can be pumped from the Atlantic City 800-foot sand aquifer, which supplies the borough with its fresh water.
In May and June, the borough saw 36% and 43% increases, respectively, in water use over 2019. In a press release (https://bit.ly/32VvsGm), the borough stated, “July water consumption in Stone Harbor came close to exceeding the NJDEP (state Department of Environmental Protection) allocation level.”
Borough officials reminded the public that exceeding the allocation level could result in “costly fines imposed by the state.”
At a recent Stone Harbor Borough Council meeting, Councilman Reese Moore said that the town’s irrigation schedule, a conservation effort aimed at reducing water waste by prescribing when and how residential irrigation happens, was not observed by some homeowners.
Moore reported 249 first-time violations of the schedule, 44 cases in which there was a second violation, 13 with a third violation, and three cases where property owners violated the borough’s ordinance for the fourth time.
The ordinance provides for a first warning, followed by progressive fines for each additional violation. A second violation is a $100 fine, a third is $250, and violations beyond three can merit a fine from $350 to $2,500.
The borough is taking various actions to deal with the water consumption issue. It is a problem exacerbated this summer by the early arrival of second homeowners, many of whom decided to ride out the epidemic in Cape May County.
The borough, which, according to county statistics, has less than 900 permanent residents, sees its 3,300 homes fill up in the peak months of summer. This year, the population swelled earlier and for a longer period. An increase in water use was one of several indicators that the community was more crowded than usual.
How Does the System Work?
About 40% of potable water, in New Jersey, is supplied from groundwater. That number rises to 75%, in Cape May County. A water plan is developed by the state, including water budgets, annual and monthly allocations, which set limits on how much water can be pumped from groundwater sources. The state first passed its Water Supply Management Act, in 1981, and successive water supply plans were issued since.
The same aquifers supply water to hundreds of communities, making their water usage a variable that impacts others across county boundaries.
Water recharge areas necessary to the maintenance of water levels in the aquifers also lie well outside the jurisdictions of local municipalities and county governments. These realities ushered in state management of the resource.
This state allocation system sits in a context of threats to the water supply. Rising sea levels and land subsidence, the actual sinking of the land, contribute to saltwater intrusion. Land-use policies at groundwater recharging sites miles inland can affect groundwater levels in shore communities.
In all of this complexity, the allocation level becomes the most visible criterion on which individual communities must focus their policy efforts.
Shore communities present special issues. Many of the county’s resort communities have to grapple with uneven water usage throughout any annual period.
If there is going to be a problem, it is usually going to be found during July and August, peak tourism season months, when the county’s population swells from under 100,000 individuals to over 600,000, according to county statistics.
Stone Harbor has been here before. A decade ago, the borough flirted with exceeding its monthly allocation level.
In July 2010, the borough consumed 45 million gallons for the month when its monthly allocation was 46 million gallons. The borough requested an increase in the allotment, and it was approved, in 2013. At present, Stone Harbor’s allocation stands at 268 million gallons a year and 52 million gallons per month.
The county’s towns constantly deal with allocation issues. When Middle Township wanted to bring potable water to Del Haven, the most efficient and economical way was through a contract with neighboring Lower Township. The Lower Township Municipal Utilities Authority (LTMUA) needed a water source that was within allocation limits. LTMUA made a deal with Wildwood Water Authority.
Wildwood had space in its water allocation, LTMUA had the nearby infrastructure that could reach Del Haven, and Middle Township could make the arrangement work by an ordinance that required all homes in the impacted area to sign up.
The state’s 2017-2022 water supply plan asserts that there is enough fresh water in the county’s aquifer sources to supply what is needed for the “foreseeable” future. How far out that future is, the report does not say. What is known is that access to fresh water has always presented challenges.
In some parts of the county, those challenges have been greater than in others. Some creative solutions have been employed.
Cape May fought a losing battle with saltwater intrusion into its Cohansey aquifer wells. The solution was the state’s first desalination plant, built in 1998.
It was an innovative solution that cost the city $5 million and has provided water to the neighboring borough of West Cape May and the Coast Guard base, as well as to the county’s namesake resort.
Now, city officials are grappling with a water management plan report that calls for significant new investment in an expanded plant and upgraded distribution system.
Wildwood was one of the first communities, in the nation, to embrace new technology, aquifer storage and recovery. This methodology uses pumps in an area of Route 47, in Rio Grande, to provide groundwater, which is pumped to the island and re-injected into a shallow aquifer during periods of low demand. The water is there to be withdrawn in the peak usage of summer.
For many of the island communities, the battle against saltwater intrusion has driven water utilities off the islands to inland wells.
Stone Harbor is the southernmost municipality along the Jersey Shore to draw its potable water from wells within the municipal limits. The borough has four wells.
The water has higher levels of sodium than the standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The levels pose no health risk and are measured and publicly disclosed in the borough’s annual quarterly drinking water report. Still, the battle against saltwater continues everywhere.
The water access and distribution system are complex, involving variables that extend beyond any municipal or county authority. The aquifers do not observe governmental boundaries. Atlantic County’s water use policy impacts Cape May County.
The state’s water use plan identifies critical aquifer recharging locations in Ocean and Burlington counties. These are areas where rainwater has the best path to recharging the aquifers that many communities are pumping from. Policies that protect groundwater recharge areas have an impact across the communities that draw from the aquifers.
The act of drawing water presents problems. If groundwater levels don’t remain at constant levels concerning usage and recharge, space is created for saltwater intrusion. Water extraction also contributes to a sinking land level.
What is to be Done?
It’s hard to keep all these complex interactions in mind when one’s objective may be nothing more than irrigating a lawn. That is where local measures can have their biggest impact. Local communities make rules about many simple things.
In Stone Harbor, several steps were taken, and the borough is on the verge of many more.
Irrigation schedules try to reduce the water waste associated with landscape maintenance. Local governments also revise ordinances, reducing the amount of lot area where impervious surfaces are allowed, increasing the chance that water will percolate back into the ground rather than run off into the paved streets, heading for the storm drains.
Other measures can include greater use of native plants, alternative landscaping options instead of traditional lawns, water rates that discourage waste, and meters that allow quick identification of unusual water consumption patterns, an example being the identification of a winter leak while homeowners are absent.
Moore points to a brochure prepared by the Stone Harbor Property Owners Association on sustainable landscaping as another water conservation effort.
Stone Harbor is the largest single water user and recognizes a need to lead by example. One option under the current trial is the use of artificial grass.
A pilot project would allow officials and homeowners to compare various forms of artificial turf as a potential replacement for natural grass.
The borough is not just depending on the kindness of others. The Aug. 16 press release made clear there will be an effort to “ensure compliance,” hence Moore’s reading of the number of violation notices issued.
In 2016, noted science writer John Upton published an article with the title, “Sinking Atlantic Coastline Meets Rapidly Rising Seas.” One point, supported by geophysical research, is that, in areas of the Atlantic Coast, particularly from southern Maryland to northern North Carolina, “the effects of groundwater pumping are compounding the sinking effects of natural processes.”
Those water allocation levels are part of a much larger and more complex set of processes, much of it circling back to the issue of individual water use in increasingly developed shore communities.
To contact Vince Conti, email email@example.com.