Published: December 4, 2005

The Drink Is Not Drinkable

By CAREN CHESLER (NYT) 1338 words

LOWER TOWNSHIP - IN Cape May County, a peninsula surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Delaware Bay on the other, residents lug home gallons of bottled water from the grocery store each week because the tap water tastes so bad.

''The water from the sink is nasty,'' said Walter Priestley, a 44-year-old antique shop owner in Lower Township. ''It smells like rotten eggs.''

Jessica O'Neal, an 11-year-old also from Lower Township, said the water actually looks brown. ''Sometimes it tastes like the ocean water,'' she said.

Yet for all of the motor oil, gasoline and pesticides that have been absorbed into the ground and are now making their way into private wells, there is a larger threat to the water supply: salt in the municipal wells.

Chloride contamination, considered the biggest threat to the water supply here, has already been discovered in each of the five aquifers in Cape May County, according to the United States Geological Survey. More than 120 supply wells have been abandoned since 1940, and many more are at risk today.

The problem is that many wells in Cape May County are near the coast, where the preponderance of people in this area of South Jersey live, even though the more abundant supply of groundwater is found in aquifers that run like a spine through the middle of the Cape May peninsula.

Moving the municipal wells would be costly, township officials said, because new water lines would have to be put down. So for now, towns continue to pump water from the ground faster than nature can replenish it, creating a vacuum that draws in seawater from the aquifers under the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay.

As a result, the saltwater line in Cape May County is moving inland at the rate of about 300 yards a year.

''The saltwater is collapsing inward from all three directions,'' said Pierre Lacombe, a hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey. ''You have to strategically locate the wells to best utilize the resource, not in response to where the population is. But municipalities don't generally do that because it costs too much.''

The intrusion of salt into the water supply has been occurring along the Atlantic Coast for decades, but in most areas the situation has been limited to small parts of the aquifer and has had little effect on water supply wells. In Cape May County, however, the Geological Survey says the effects are substantial.

While saltwater may not seem toxic, state environmental officials say it can be a health hazard when ingested in large quantities. The officials fear that the continued intrusion of saltwater will not only imperil the supply of drinking water but also jeopardize future development. Fending off the saltwater is not a new problem for Cape May, Mr. Lacombe said. In 1910, some wells in Wildwood went salty, prompting residents to move them inland. But within 10 years, those wells also went salty, forcing residents to move inland once again. By 1940, the wells in Wildwood Crest were so salty that a local laundry serving the hotels there went out of business because it could not make soap suds with salty water.

In 1943, Cape May installed a municipal well, but by 1947 the chlorides were above the state-mandated limit of 250 milligrams per liter. A second well was installed 2,000 feet north, but within five years, the salt levels rose there as well. The city subsequently installed three more wells, each one several thousand feet north of the last, and all three went salty.

''What they were doing was marching the saltwater front inland,'' Mr. Lacombe said. ''When you pump a well it creates a cone of depression, like when you pull the plug out of your bathtub. It creates a whirlpool effect and actually pulls saltwater toward it.''

As the population has increased, the situation has worsened. By the late 1990's, Cape May City closed its wells and took the unusual step of building the state's first desalination plant.

The plant, which sits in a brick building that once housed the Cape May Water Works, takes salty water from a deep aquifer, the 800-foot Atlantic City sands, and turns it into potable drinking water. But the facility cost $5.5 million to build, and residents pay two to three times more for their water there than elsewhere in the state.

''The problem is serious,'' John Gibson, a former Republican assemblyman who sponsored legislation aimed at resolving the problem, said recently. ''We already have saltwater intrusion that's closed a number of municipal wells. And the saltwater intrusion line will continue to work its way up the peninsula. It's only a matter of time before another major well is closed.''

Mr. Gibson's bill, which was approved in 2001, called for a $2 million study of the projected population and water demands in Cape May County over the next 50 years. The bill also called for a moratorium on new permits to withdraw groundwater in Cape May County -- unless the applicant could prove the withdrawal would not exacerbate the saltwater intrusion.

Not surprisingly, developers hired consultants to show that their applications would have no adverse effect.

For now, local officials are considering three options: more widespread desalination; treating wastewater and re-injecting it back into the aquifer, creating a barrier to the movement of saltwater; and putting new municipal wells in the center of the Cape May peninsula.

''Oh, it will increase the cost of water, and they'll have to put in pipeline,'' said Dr. Anthony Navoy, a hydrologist with the Geological Survey. ''But if they don't do it, they'll be hit by saltwater, and the New Jersey D.E.P. isn't likely to allow any increases in their water allocations.''

Moreover, Dr. Navoy said, if developers cannot increase their water allocations, new construction will stop. Cape May County would not be the first to bear the cost of running new pipelines a great distance. Jersey City, for instance, receives its water from the Boonton reservoir, about 25 miles away.

Jody Carrara, who heads the coastal planning division of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, places part of the blame on the advent of sewers.

With a septic system, Ms. Carrara said, about 80 percent of all wastewater goes back into the aquifer, while with sewers, the wastewater is discarded in the ocean. In addition, as forests and open fields are paved over with roads and parking lots, rainwater and snowmelt cannot make their way back into the ground. From 1986 to 1995, about 4,200 acres of New Jersey's open space were paved over each year, according to the State Department of Environmental Protection.

''Every time you build a road, you have storm drains, and instead of that water going back into the ground and into the aquifer, it runs right off the road and into the stream,'' she said.

Ms. Carrara says the effects of the saltwater intrusion can already be seen, including pockets of dead cedar trees along the banks of Delaware Bay.

''They like to live in wetlands,'' she said, ''but not saltwater wetlands.''

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company