While water supplies are not yet low enough for state officials to issue mandatory restrictions, state officials will soon order water to be transferred from more abundant sources to depleted reservoirs.
The U.S. Drought Monitor put Bergen County under a “severe drought” in its weekly national report issued Thursday, while the northern two-thirds of the state — including the primary water-generating regions of Passaic and Morris counties — were under a “moderate drought.”
Related: Current reservoir levels (via NJDEP)
Bergen and Passaic counties have received 4.1 and 3.5 inches of rain, respectively, since mid-August — about 60 percent less than average, according to the National Weather Service.
Because of the lack of rain, the Oradell and Wanaque reservoir systems have plunged from near capacity in early summer to 44 and 49 percent capacity this week, respectively.
“What we need is steady soaking rains and we just haven’t had that,” said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The DEP has scheduled a public hearing for next Thursday in anticipation of issuing a formal “drought warning” for 12 counties in the northeastern, central and northern coastal regions — the first time since the drought crisis of 2001 and 2002.
While no decisions have been made, more water could be transferred through interconnected pipes from reservoirs that are faring better, like the Newark and Jersey City reservoirs in Passaic and Morris counties, Hajna said.
“We want to stabilize the system now,” Hajna said. “We don’t want to go into next spring in these conditions. But if we have a dry winter and there is no snowmelt or substantial rain, these conditions will continue.”
A drought warning is one step before a “water emergency,” which would place mandatory restrictions on usage and can be authorized only by Governor Christie. The last water emergency was issued by Gov. James McGreevey in 2002 and lasted 10 months after the state had years of unusually dry weather.
Much of North Jersey has been in a moderate drought since the spring when rainfall was about 30 to 40 percent below normal. A relatively dry and hot summer made the situation worse.
Three New Jersey reservoirs owned by the Suez water utility — Oradell, Woodcliff Lake and Lake Tappan — dropped from 85 percent capacity in June to 65 percent in late July, when the state began encouraging the public to conserve. They were at 44.4 percent on Thursday.
Suez is drawing most of its water from the Wanaque Reservoir, which the company co-owns with the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission. About 55 million gallons of the 85 million gallons that goes to Suez’s 800,000 customers in Bergen and Hudson counties is coming from the Wanaque. Suez is also drawing water from the Saddle River and Hirschfield Brook.
The Wanaque, which supplies water to as many as 3 million people, has dropped from 84 percent capacity at the beginning of July to 40 percent this week. It has begun drawing water from its backup, the Monksville Reservoir, for the first time in 10 years.
It has also been pumping 40 million to 50 million gallons a day this month from the Pompton River. But the river’s water levels are low, prohibiting the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission from pumping more, said Todd Caligure, the commission’s executive director.
“At the end of the day, the only real answer is rainfall,” he said.
The DEP will hold a public hearing next week on declaring a drought warning.
When: 10 a.m. Thursday
Where: Millburn Free Public Library, 200 Glen Ave., Millburn
What: A drought warning declaration would affect Bergen, Passaic, Morris, Hudson, Essex, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmout, Ocean, Somerset and Union counties.