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HIGHLANDS HIGHLIGHTS: The Quest for Clean Water

NJ HILLS MEDIA // August 28, 2023

How far are you willing to go for clean water? For most of us living in developed countries, it’s a trip to the nearest sink or fountain where clean water is freely available on-demand and in limitless supply whenever you need it. However, up to a third of the world’s population does not have access to safe, clean drinking water. Some must travel long distances to find it while others must suffer disease and death by drinking unclean water.

Water is one of the three basic needs that every living organism on earth needs to survive, so its importance can’t be understated. Animals also recognize the importance of water, and in the wild they fight over retaining access to it. We humans like to think better of ourselves, but we also quarrel – often violently – over access to water or the boundaries that these water sources create. 

Humans are social animals by nature: we band together as families, as clans, in towns, and cities. This concentrates our water demands often beyond an area’s ability to provide it. Like all animals, we also create waste. Historically, water and waste were combined: water was obtained from a river, and waste was discharged into it, to be carried away “somewhere else”. On a river “somewhere else” means “everyone downstream”. 

On a river pollution is cumulative: it gets worse the further downstream you go. Ages before environmentalism and pollution became political platforms, humans recognized that water in its cities was polluted and unclean. Unclean drinking water caused by far the highest rates of disease and death in cities throughout the world until surprisingly recently. 

What caused the recent change? Plumbing had already existed for 2,000 years, and people were still living in the same cities dumping their waste into the same sources. Where do you get clean water from if nothing has changed? Again, the answer to where you get the water from, and send the waste to, is the same: somewhere else. 

To get clean water, you must get it from somewhere else that hasn’t been polluted, and you must protect it from becoming so. In the 20th- and early 21st centuries, the largest population centers in the US, like New York and Newark sought water from their respective states’ undeveloped hinterlands. New York sought the Catskills while Newark sought the Highlands. 

Both cities constructed reservoirs and protected forests to provide their residents with water. Forests act like a sponge that absorbs, filters and stores rainwater as groundwater. This water winds up in the reservoirs and is conveyed via aqueducts to users in cities. Most people use this water without a second thought as to where it comes from or how it gets to them. Only in its absence do we appreciate its value.

We are fortunate that 70% of New Jersey residents have a protected source of clean drinking water in the New Jersey Highlands, a region which is forecast to receive increasing amounts of rainfall in the coming years. 

Perhaps “fortunate” isn’t the correct word to use. Protection stems less from luck than from years of focused advocacy by the New Jersey Highlands Coalition and others, which resulted in the 2004 Highlands Act. The Act’s strong water conservation measures and forestland protections along with Governor Corzine’s Executive Order 114 intend to reverse existing water deficits and ensure that clean drinking water will stay on-tap.

By contrast with our western neighbors who are experiencing decades-long droughts that are expected to worsen with the effects of climate change, New Jerseyans have it better than most.

Still, with water being such an essential resource and with increasingly frequent severe weather patterns threatening its quality and quantity, our water future is not as secure as it appears. To preserve this vital resource, we must be watchful of today’s threats, anticipate what New Jersey’s future will look like and act responsibly together.


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