By Michael Pisauro
In just a few days, New Jersey will choose not only its governor, but whether or not it will continue its long history of supporting open space.
On Nov. 3, New Jerseyans will vote on the “Green Acres, Water Supply and Floodplain Protection, and Farmland and Historic Preservation Bond Act of 2009″ — or public question #1. How we, as a state, vote on this question will determine whether we preserve New Jersey for us and for future generations — whether we hand New Jersey to our children in a better condition than we got it — or whether they will ask us why we did not ask to protect New Jersey when we had the chance.
New Jersey has a long and proud history of supporting open space. The state’s long-standing preservation program has been a shining example of a good government program and has been looked at by many states as they create their own open-space programs.
In today’s economy, why should we continue to preserve open space? Open space provides many benefits and resources that we could not afford to lose.
Preserving open space will help protect our drinking water. New Jersey gets its drinking water from aquifers and from surface waters. When the Highlands Act was being debated, water companies testified that it would cost upwards of $30 billion to treat the water if the land surrounding our water resources was not protected. We can either spend some money today to preserve our drinking water or we can spend lots more later to make sure it is fit to drink. This is not hyperbole, but real-world experience from other states like New York. New York saved $6 billion in capital costs and $300 million in operating costs for new water filtration by preserving the Catskill and Delaware watersheds.
When we preserve the lands around important surface waters, we allow the waters to be filtered by the land — resulting in cleaner water reaching our streams and rivers. We also slow the rush of water toward those rivers, reducing erosion and downstream flooding. Historically, New Jersey has had the fourth highest number of claims for flood damage. As a state that is highly developed, all of New Jersey’s roads, sidewalks and parking lots channel water rapidly to the streams and rivers nearby. By preserving land around surface waters, natural vegetation can slow, filter and clean the water, resulting in more water going into the ground and cleaner water reaching streams and rivers. More open space can mean less flooding. Less flooding means less property damage, less loss of homes and less compensation to those affected.
Open space also means economic opportunities. An estimated $2.8 billion to $9.7 billion worth of products are obtained from New Jersey’s environment. This ranges from farm-grown produce to shellfish and fish from our rivers, bays and coast. New Jersey also receives about $2.2 billion from eco-tourism, money spent by hikers, vacationers, sightseers, birdwatchers, hunters and anglers.
For the average household, the cost of implementing public question #1 will be less than $10 a year. For less than a couple of cups of coffee, New Jersey can insure that its water supply is protected and cleaner. New Jersey can ensure lands around streams and rivers can be protected to reduce flooding. New Jersey can ensure lands are preserved to allow for the recharge of aquifers.
Open space, farmland preservation and historic preservation will help the state achieve a balance. Over the last several years, New Jersey has been losing some 15 acres a day to development. In fact, according to studies, New Jersey is likely to be the first state to reach full build-out and we will do so within the next 40 years. Full build-out means that there will not be a single lot left to build on. All of that development requires new roads, sewers or septic systems, new electrical wires — in short, lots of new infrastructure, which is expensive to install and maintain. Much of this new infrastructure will come at the cost of the taxpayer — both the cost to install and the cost to maintain. Not only can open space help reduce these costs, it can help property in proximity to the preserved land maintain its value — and, in some cases, increase it.
It is vital that we protect our open spaces and our agricultural lands. While it may be hard to ask for money in this economic climate, this will be money well spent — and, it is estimated, return 10 times the money paid in benefits to the citizens of New Jersey. That $10 a year will provide a better future for us and our children.
Guest contributor Michael Pisauro is an attorney and lobbyist with the New Jersey Environmental Lobby.