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Don't sink Canal Commission
5/6/2011 Volume XLIV, No. 18

Governor Chris Christie is proposing to eliminate the Delaware and Raritan Canal Commission as part of his sweeping plan to increase government efficiency. Although most of us would agree that improving government efficiency is a great goal, this particular proposal is a textbook case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It would serve neither the public good nor the government of this state we’re in, and would result in less government efficiency!

The D&R Canal Commission was established in 1974 with a mandate to protect the drinking water supply of 1.5 million people. The Canal Commission also oversees the D&R Canal State Park, a 70-mile linear park that’s Central Jersey’s most popular spot for jogging, bicycling, fishing, hiking, canoeing, horseback riding and more.  It’s a state and national historic district, and an important wildlife corridor. The Canal Commission makes sure public and private development does not harm the park’s natural beauty and historic integrity.

Perhaps the most important function of the Canal Commission is protecting the water supply. This means protecting lands within the surrounding watershed; thus, the Canal Commission has regulatory authority over development projects in the watershed’s 448 square miles and 35 municipalities. The regulations ensure that developments do not impair the quantity and quality of water entering the Canal. The Canal Commission also holds and monitors conservation easements on about 5,000 acres along the streams that drain into the Canal.

Despite the size of its task, the Canal Commission is a model of regulatory efficiency.  State law requires its permit decisions to be made just 45 days after a complete development application is filed; in over 30 years, the Canal Commission has missed this deadline fewer than 10 times! This is an exemplary record for a state agency in New Jersey.

In a recent effort to streamline permitting, the Canal Commission offered to take over the review of stormwater impacts in the few cases where applicants need both a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Canal Commission permit. This type of thinking helps make the DEP more efficient – and should be rewarded. The Canal Commission’s regulations are more stringent than the DEP’s regulations, so without the Commission our water quality will have less protection.

Far from a bloated bureaucracy, the Canal Commission employs just three full-time people, aided by two part time engineers.  The staff answers to nine commissioners – a representative of the DEP and eight volunteer public members appointed by the Governor. Since the public members are unpaid and the Canal Commission raises its funding through permit fees, the whole operation is “revenue neutral.”

In other words, the Canal Commission works.  In addition to not costing taxpayers, the Canal Commission provides huge net benefits:  protected drinking water quality and recreational opportunities; an objective voice in response to proposals made by private parties and public agencies; and a forum for citizens to partner with state government, increasing accountability and transparency.

The proposal to abolish the Canal Commission was met with a bipartisan outcry from citizens, developers, environmental and historic preservation organizations, and municipalities.  Several real estate developers wrote letters to the Governor in support of the Commission – a true testament to this refreshing example of fair and efficient government.

But the Canal Commission is seriously threatened.  Two of the three staff members left when the Governor announced his elimination plan, and the director is retiring at the end of this month. Unless Governor Christie acts immediately to allow the Canal Commission to hire new staff, the doors will close on June 1.

Instead of cutting the Canal Commission, the state should use this agency as an exemplary model for other agencies to emulate, including the DEP.

You can help save this example of good government that works for the public.  Please contact Governor Christie at 609-292-6000 or www.state.nj.us/governor/contact and urge him to keep the D&R Canal Commission and authorize immediate hiring of replacement staff.

You can also share your support for the Canal Commission with the chairs of the N.J. Senate and Assembly environment committees, Senator Bob Smith (732-752-0770) and Assemblyman John McKeon (973-275-1113), who recently convened a hearing on this issue. You can email them at www.njleg.state.nj.us/members/legsearch.asp.

 And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s  website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

 

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