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Wanaque Reservoir presides over thirsty scene in New Jersey; Design assumptions faulted for failing to consider drought


WANAQUE, N.J. - The Wanaque Reservoir looks nothing like the workhorse of northeastern New Jersey's water supply system these days. Even after a recent storm, it is only about 32 percent full, and some sections of it resemble a parched and snowy flatland, with naked rocky banks, tufts of trees atop exposed mounds, and a few ice-covered ponds.

The scene, though, was not what New Jersey water officials had in mind a decade ago when they agreed to spend $200 million on a pumping system intended to spare both the reservoir and northern New Jersey severe water shortages well into the 21st century.

And now fretful officials are drafting plans to import emergency water supplies for the area served by the Wanaque (WAN-a-kew) and are thinking about ordering restrictions on water use.

They are also openly questioning the adequacy of a project that its boosters hailed a decade ago as the savior of northern New Jersey's water supply. In rainy times, the system known as Wanaque South relies heavily on a number of huge pumps that pull water from two nearby rivers - the Pompton and the Ramapo - and transfer it to the reservoir, in effect refilling it as needed for the 2.2 million people who draw water from it.

But because rainfall has been so sparse in recent months, the rivers have been too low to provide meaningful amounts of new water. And because a similar shortage occurred in 1995, New Jersey water officials have started wondering whether the calculations used in the early 1980s to predict stream flows into the Pompton and Ramapo during long dry spells were too optimistic.

All across the region, rainfall totals were well below average throughout the second half of 1998. But the impact on water supplies has varied widely; almost all of Connecticut's reservoirs are doing well, for instance, while the Wanaque and the reservoirs that serve New York City are far below average. And the rain and snow of recent days did little to help matters.

Reservoirs 51 percent full

On average, New York's three reservoir systems are now about 51.4 percent full. Normally in early January, they are at 80 percent of capacity, said Cathy DelliCarpini, a spokeswoman for New York City's Department of Environmental Protection.

DelliCarpini said city officials expect to declare a "drought watch" by the end of the month. Under that policy, officials will intensify appeals to New Yorkers to conserve water voluntarily.

On average, northeastern New Jersey's 13 reservoirs, which include the Wanaque, are also about half full, and like New York City's, are about 30 percentage points below normal for early January.

New Jersey's next step in its campaign to save water could include restrictions on some outdoor use of water. Such an order could come in about a month unless reservoir levels improve markedly, New Jersey officials have said.

Re-evaluating assumptions

As some water officials look at what steps need to be taken to conserve supplies, others are re-evaluating the assumptions that led to the Wanaque pumping project. Paul Schorr, a research scientist in New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, said the pumping project was based on figures on stream flow in northern New Jersey between 1921 and 1979, when the design work started. He called the 58-year record the best and most comprehensive data available for the entire watershed of the two rivers.

But at the same time, he conceded that 58 years was a "very short period" to use for calculations of rainfall and stream flow.

"It's more than likely we can experience wetter or drier years than what's in the record," he said.

By contrast, while the Wanaque falters, a similar-sized reservoir in the region, the Barkhamsted in northwestern Connecticut, is flourishing this winter.

Things are far simpler for the Barkhamsted. While each reservoir holds about 30 billion gallons when full, the Barkhamsted serves 400,000 people in Hartford and 11 surrounding suburban towns. The Wanaque serves 2.2 million people in several cities, including Newark and Paterson, and scores of suburban communities.

While the Wanaque has been unable to meet its safe yield because of low flow in the rivers, average daily demand of 55 million gallons from the Barkhamsted has remained well within its yield of 77 million gallons a day, according to the Metropolitan District Commission, which manages the reservoir.

Officials at the Barkhamsted are quick to point out that it has longe lived by the slogan that the Barkhamsted can survive for two years without a drop of rain.

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