For the first time in 15 years state environmental officials have declared a drought warning for central, northern and coastal northern New Jersey.

After months of below-average rainfall, the drought watch that had been in effect for months was ramped up to a warning at the end of last week.

The affected counties are Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Passaic, Somerset, Sussex, Union and Warren.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the declaration allows the DEP to take steps to manage reservoir systems and transfer water from one system to another in order to balance overall storage, however “the other key aspect is that the warning elevates the need for the public to conserve water as much as possible.”

Hajna said water conservation under the drought warning is not mandatory but everyone needs to pitch in.

“The storage capacity in many of our major reservoir systems is now about 50 percent capacity or less. The situation is becoming more critical and we need customers of water supply companies to do their part and conserve water wherever possible,” he said.

He added “the goal right now is to see if we can stretch our water supplies as much as possible, the idea is to try to avoid a drought emergency.”

He said if it doesn’t start raining more frequently and heavily “the next step would be the drought emergency. The emergency can only be declared by the governor. This would entail mandatory restrictions on non-essential water use.”

Dave Robinson, New Jersey state climatologist at Rutgers University, said drought warnings are rare.

“It’s something that comes along every 10 or 20 years,” he said. “Drought warnings were almost declared in 2005 and 2010, but we pulled out of it. This time around, however, it was quite clear conditions had deteriorated and were continuing to deteriorate and there were certainly no large rain storms looming on the horizon.”

He said while the situation is quite serious, it’s fortunate we are at the end of October and not the beginning of May.

“Water use drops during the later fall and winter, there’s less consumption and the rain doesn’t evaporate like during the summer,” he said.

So how much rain do we need to turn things around?

“We really need to get many periods of rainfall, good soaking rainfall over the course of a number of months in order for us to return to a more normal situation,” Hajna said.

In the meantime, he said. water conservation in the home is strongly encouraged.

“Things like running dishwashers and washing machines only when they’re full, turning off the faucet when shaving or brushing your teeth, so you’re looking to save a gallon here, a couple of gallons there,” he said. “If everyone does this we can conserve tens of millions of gallons of water a day.”

He added “if the situation doesn’t change, then we could be looking at a drought emergency at some point in the near future. I can’t say exactly when. Hopefully we’ll get some significant rainfall and maybe some snowmelt over the course of the winter to help us pull out of this.”

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