What is a watershed & who cares anyway?

I care and you should too. Let me tell you why. Soap suds run down your drain. Your neighbor’s lawn fertilizer seeps into the soil. Motor oil traces wash down the storm sewer in the next town.

These are everyday happenings in the Garden State — and the rest of the nation — that we don’t think about, but we should. Because as part of the same watershed, they may all affect a common water source.

We live in the most densely populated state in the nation where the loss of open land to development over the years in New Jersey has impacted the quality of our water resources. Last summer’s drought only further emphasized the urgency of protecting our state’s water quality and water sources.

Watersheds are considered nature’s boundaries — areas of land with common water sources that feed into each other. A watershed generally includes its lakes, rivers, estuaries, wetlands, streams and the surrounding landscape; groundwater resources are also included when they are linked to the surface water system.

Watershed management plans are created to protect water resources by maintaining high water quality and improving or restoring impaired water sources. Such citizen-based plans lead to smart growth by encouraging development in areas with existing or already-planned infrastructure.

In New Jersey, watershed — and watershed management — are not new words.

The Garden State ranks as a national leader in watershed management. Never-theless, while New Jersey has 20 watershed management areas and we all live in one, only 11 have currently instituted protective plans or have begun project development.

But as I said in my State of the State Address in January, the watershed management process is going to change shortly on a positive note for New Jersey. I unveiled at the time an increase in funding for watershed management planning throughout the state by dedicating $8.85 million in my next budget for Fiscal Year 2001.

Consequently, the planning process will be accelerated by four years, enabling every watershed management area to now start its planning process by September 2000.

Back in January, I also signed Executive Order 109 requiring comprehensive environmental assessments before the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) can approve any major new or amended Wastewater Management Plans submitted by a governmental agency or private entity.

This initiative applies to pending and new applications that directly affect 100 or more acres of land or the use of 20,000 gallons of water or more per day.

To further protect New Jersey’s environment, I also signed in January two more pieces of environmental legislation that have an impact on our watersheds.

One bill grants an income tax deduction to anyone who contributes open space to a public or nonprofit conservation organization. The other piece of legislation appropriates $600,000 from the state budget for soil and water conservation projects.

It’s clear that water conservation boils down to keeping our drinking water safe and plentiful for everyone who refers to the Garden State as home.

As we decide where to put our sewers, roads and new buildings, we need to recognize the impact they will have on an entire watershed. We simply must protect our watersheds — just as we must preserve our million acres of open space and farmland to make New Jersey the best place to live, work and raise a family.

Christie Whitman is the governor of New Jersey.