If you drink Budweiser, you’re drinking water from New Jersey’s Highlands.
A rugged, mostly forested 1,250-square-mile region stretching diagonally across northern New Jersey, the Highlands supplies drinking water to about 6.2 million people, or more than 70 percent of the state’s population. That includes residents of Newark, Jersey City and Paterson, the state’s three largest cities, as well as parts of 16 of New Jersey’s 21 counties.
Thanks to purification provided naturally and for free by Highlands forests, the region’s water is among the cleanest and least expensive in the U.S.
New Jersey’s pharmaceutical, manufacturing, and food and beverage industries depend on this clean Highlands water. When you’re enjoying an ice cold Bud or other brew made at Anheuser Busch’s Newark plant, toast the waters of the Highlands.
Due in part to the importance of Highlands water to this state we’re in, New Jersey enacted the 2004 Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act to protect the region’s forests, farms and waterways.
The Highlands Act found that “protection of the state’s drinking water supply and other key natural resources ... could not be left to the uncoordinated land use decisions of 88 municipalities, seven counties and a myriad of private landowners,” all making decisions in a vacuum.
The Highlands law established regional planning and set up the state Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council, which adopted a Regional Master Plan in 2008 to protect and enhance the value of water, forests, farmland and other natural, historic, cultural and scenic resources.
The 860,000-acre Highlands Region includes the core “Preservation Area,” which is primarily forested and less developed, and the more suburbanized “Planning Area.” Municipalities in the Preservation Area are required to conform to the Highlands Regional Master Plan, while conformance is voluntary for Planning Area municipalities.
While the Highlands Act and its Regional Master Plan’s planning and water protection have been successful, many threats are challenging long-term success.
One, the independence of the Highlands Council and its mandate to protect the region was damaged under the Christie administration. The Council now has several members appointed by the administration who have sought repeatedly to undermine the Highlands Act and Regional Master Plan.
Two, rollbacks of state environmental regulations protecting the region have advanced during the Christie administration. For example, proposed new septic density regulations for the Highlands Preservation Area would allow more subdivision of large properties, which would result in more contamination of both surface and groundwater, as well as loss of forests, wildlife habitat and biodiversity.
Finally, voluntary conformance with the regional plan has lagged, hampered during the past eight years by the Christie administration and pockets of local hostility toward the Highlands Act and Regional Master Plan.
But the Highlands’ status could brighten within the next several months. In January, New Jersey will have a new governor and a newly constituted Legislature. With them comes a new opportunity to restore and strengthen protections for the state’s largest source of clean drinking water.
The Green in ’17 campaign led by New Jersey League of Conservation Voters’ Education Fund has some advice for New Jersey’s next governor:
- Reverse the Christie administration’s rollback of state clean water protections — especially septic density regulations and flood hazard rules, which would threaten water quality;
- Appoint members to the Highlands Council who support the water protection and planning mission of the Highlands Act and the Regional Master Plan. All current council members’ terms have expired, so the next governor will have the ability to dramatically influence the effectiveness and quality of the council for years to come;
- Support the Regional Master Plan and strongly encourage municipalities in the Planning Area to voluntarily conform;
- Ensure that proposed changes to the Regional Master Plan — currently undergoing a required six-year review — do not weaken the plan but make it more effective.
New Jersey’s waters, rivers, streams, reservoirs and underground aquifers don’t recognize political boundaries like county and municipal borders. It’s important to continue our state’s regional planning initiatives, as regional planning is the best hope for protecting the precious, fragile water resources of the Highlands.
Let’s not wait until it is too late. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanac, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.”
To learn more about the Highlands region and its water resources, visit the Highlands Coalition website at www.njhighlandscoalition.org or the Highlands Council website at http://www.state.nj.us/njhighlands/.
To read the Green in ’17 Environmental Policy Guide, go to www.njlcvef.org/greenin17.html.
And for information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Association website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.