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Natural Awakenings South Jersey

Water – Lifeblood of the Pine Barrens

Sep 30, 2011 07:54PM ● By Richard Bizub

“In the final analysis, it is the citizen who will decide the ultimate fate of the pine barrens. It is our responsibility to pass this wilderness heritage on, in its natural state, to our heirs.” – Howard Boyd, A Field Guide to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.

Within one of the most densely populated states in the nation, lies an island of green known as the Pinelands National Reserve (PNR). The nation’s first such reserve, it covers 1,719 square miles (1.1 million acres). An area the size of Rhode Island, PNR is rich with abundant surface waters consisting of wetlands, rivers, streams, and the industries that depend on those surface waters such as cranberry and blueberry farming, recreation, and the state’s rich shellfish industry.

Beneath the Pinelands lies perhaps the cleanest and most abundant source of water on the East Coast, the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer.  Because of the porous nature of the soils, surface water and ground water are inextricably connected.  Groundwater provides over 90 percent of the baseflow to these surface water bodies.  In simplistic terms, depletion of groundwater for whatever reason, equates to depletion of the surface waters, and hence loss of valuable wetland and aquatic habitat.  This loss would not only be detrimental to wildlife, but also to the traditional Pinelands industries that depend on these waters.

Unlike northern parts of the state, where most drinking water is obtained from surface water sources such as rivers and reservoirs, in South Jersey approximately 85 percent of the water is derived from groundwater. As the deeper aquifers become overdrawn, the pressure to use the shallow Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer increases.  The pressure to use this aquifer has existed for many years.  In the late 1800s there was a plan to build reservoirs in South Jersey and sell water to the City of Philadelphia.  Fortunately, the New Jersey State Legislature had the good sense to pass legislation prohibiting the exportation of water outside state boundaries.  Today this area is known as Wharton State Forest. Now, more than one hundred years later, there is growing evidence that the over-exploitation of this shallow aquifer and deeper aquifers have reduced the ability of these aquifers to sustain South Jersey’s human population and maintain the fragile Pine Barrens ecosystem.

The pressures to export water out of the Pinelands to serve New Jersey’s rapidly growing population will only increase with time as our aquifers become stressed and depleted. Sound watershed-based planning is critical if we are to minimize irreparable damage to the fragile Pinelands ecosystem.

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Richard Bizub is the Director of Water Programs for Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

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