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New bipartisan legislation that was signed into law by Gov. Christie in January will enhance New Jersey’s ability to protect some of the state’s most environmentally sensitive lands and better safeguard the state’s water quality.

The new legislation on Water Quality Management Plans will enable the DEP to protect some 250,000 acres of environmentally sensitive acres across New Jersey, removing those properties from existing — and in many cases obsolete — sewer service area designations. It will finally allow the DEP to move ahead with a long-stalled process that has left some of our most vulnerable lands unprotected.

It is part of the Christie Administration’s commitment to maintaining a robust water quality planning process that protects the environment, provides greater protections than other states in our region, and is consistent with obligations under the federal Clean Water Act.

Unfortunately, there has been a significant amount of misleading commentary on the important issue of the state’s revamped Water Quality Management Plans. I would like to correct the record and describe how this legislation will help our environment while also benefitting our economy.

The new legislation does not change DEP’s approach to implementing water quality management planning rules adopted in 2008. Environmentally sensitive areas, including wetlands, stream corridors, steep slopes and habitat for endangered plants and animals, will be removed from existing sewer service areas, many of which are based upon decades-old, outdated maps.

Water Quality Management Plans are essentially maps that define areas where sewer service should be located. Finalizing those plans to remove sensitive lands from sewer service areas is crucial to protecting our environment and limiting development sprawl. The new legislation will fix broken rules that made it virtually impossible for counties to complete that task, and will allow counties to more efficiently get maps done.

We have now accelerated this process of completing the maps. Under the new rules, all 21 counties must provide at least sewer service area plans to the DEP within 180 days. DEP staff met this month with representatives of all 21 counties. We are committed to providing guidance counties need to promptly finalize their plans. We anticipate having all 21 counties submit sewer service area plans by July and adopt those plans by the fall.