by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
Imagine turning on your faucet and having nothing come out! Or paying hundreds of dollars every month to keep your tap water flowing. Even though New Jersey has been blessed with abundant water supplies, it’s very possible that this state we’re in will not have plentiful cheap water in the near future. Most of us take our water supplies for granted. How many of us are truly aware of where it comes from and what is needed to protect it?
Our cheap water is, in large part, a result of preserved forest lands, most notably the New Jersey Highlands. These forested ridges provide a natural filtration system that holds and purifies the water for 64 percent of our state’s residents and industries. That’s 5.4 million people!
It’s long been understood that setting aside forested watershed lands is vastly cheaper than building water treatment and purification plants.
So it was no surprise that the New Jersey Legislature passed the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act in 2004 to make sure that water and other natural resources are permanently protected from sprawl development. This far-sighted act set up a Highlands Council to develop and implement a regional plan. Recent droughts, drying up wells and unchecked sprawl were the impetus for getting the act passed.
But today, declaring an economic crisis, Governor Christie has proposed to cut funding for the implementation of the Highlands plan. In his budget plan, the Governor has stripped $18.5 million from the Highlands Protection Fund and cut $88,000 from the Highlands Council’s budget.
Much of the promise of Highlands forest protection and water supply safeguards will be flushed right down the sink if these cuts go ahead. What economy can recover or survive without clean water?
More than five years of work and considerable expense have gone into developing the plan, but its implementation depends on municipalities conforming their own local plans to the regional plan. The proposed cuts will mean that many Highlands municipalities that were counting on planning grants will likely suspend their efforts to conform to the Highlands plan. Unless the funds are restored, the plan, and the water protections intended by the Highlands Act, will sit on a shelf while the Highlands are paved over.
There is no question that the Governor must find ways to cut costs and set New Jersey on a long-term sustainable economic path. But preserving water supplies and natural resources is part of the solution, not the problem, and should not be cut. Short-term thinking got this state into the economic crisis we have today, and only long-term thinking will get us out.
A plentiful supply of clean drinking water is, and will continue to be, our state’s most precious and critical resource. Our lives, businesses and economy depend on it. Three of New Jersey’s largest industries – food processing, pharmaceuticals, and outdoor recreation – rely on a healthy, protected Highlands region.
Please ask Governor Christie to rescind his proposed cuts to the Highlands to ensure that a fully-funded Highlands Council can do its job and Highlands municipalities can perform the vital planning needed to implement the act. Going back to business as usual without strong Highlands protection will cost future taxpayers a fortune for water and quality of life remediation.
I hope you will visit New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more information about preserving our precious land and natural resources.
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