TOM BEARDEN: The East Coast is facing the worst drought in more than a century.
Engineer Michael Barnes says the water level in New Jersey's Wannake Reservoir is less than half of normal.
TOM BEARDEN: Where is the water normally?
MICHAEL BARNES, Engineer North Jersey Water District: Well, normally we're about 25 feet underwater, and the water would be on top of those rocks, so they'd be totally submerged.
TOM BEARDEN: The water level in New Jersey's Wannake Reservoir is so low that the utility company is taking the opportunity to try to dig it deeper, even though the company knows that's a largely futile gesture.
MICHAEL BARNES: We would have to line trucks up from here down to Cape May, New Jersey -- probably 180 miles -- back to back, to get one day's extra supply. But we're whittling away at that.
TOM BEARDEN: Aquifers -- underground reservoirs -- are also so depleted that wells are drying up.
Homeowners like Joanne Pannaman are spending thousands of dollars drilling deeper in hopes of finding a new source. Images like these have become increasingly common across the eastern third of the country, where drought has not only dried up once-reliable wells, but has parched the soil and has degraded the quality of surface water.
Federal scientists say an extremely dry winter has brought severe or extreme drought to 21 percent of the U.S.; New Jersey has been hit particularly hard.
In March, the governor declared a drought emergency. Mandatory conservation measures have been imposed. Restaurants are prohibited from serving water unless customers ask for it. Homeowners can't use sprinkler systems unless they've just installed new landscaping. Golf courses and landscaping companies have been forced to cut their water usage in half.
Bradley Campbell is Commissioner of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection.
BRADLEY CAMPBELL, Commissioner, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection: For the short term, there is going to be an impact. There is going to be impacts on both households and businesses. But for the long term, if we're smart about improving water stewardship in the state, we're hoping we'll be able to avoid the kinds of restrictions we're having to have in this drought.
TOM BEARDEN: But local businesspeople say the restrictions could cost them dearly.
The Jasna Polana Tournament Players Club in Princeton uses 30 million gallons of water a year to maintain the golf course. The majority of it comes from private wells. Another four million to five million gallons comes from the city mains.
ROGER STEWART, Superintendent, Jasna Polana Golf Course: You guys are checking the depths to make sure it's all the right depths?
TOM BEARDEN: Superintendent Roger Stewart is afraid that if the drought persists as predicted, the club could suffer devastating losses.
ROGER STEWART: In some cases, we may be mistakenly thought of as purely recreation, when in reality the golf business is a business. People rely on it for income, and businesses that do business with golf courses rely on it for the business that it produces.
So in reality, when you think about it, these irrigation issues and water issues can have a devastating effect on the business part of the game.
TOM BEARDEN: Landscapers like Chris James say their $8 billion industry is already feeling the pinch.
CHRIS JAMES, Landscape Architect: I do believe that if the drought continues at present levels, it will impact my business by nearly 30 percent, or some $300,000 this year.
TOM BEARDEN: And James says homeowners in upscale neighborhoods like this one stand to lose large investments.
CHRIS JAMES: A property would have roughly $150,000 invested in their landscape. A prolonged drought of more than a year or two could cause true financial hardship.
TOM BEARDEN: There is some controversy over whether the restrictions are being applied fairly.
Landscapers, among others, point to the fact that agricultural interests, which consume a great deal more water than they do, have not been required to reduce that consumption. Neither has industry.
One complaint is that the New Jersey industry that uses the most water, the electric utilities, are exempt from drought restrictions. Power companies use about 48 million gallons of water a day to cool their generating plant equipment. But the utilities point to the 16 billion gallon Merrill Creek Reservoir in western New Jersey, which they say replaces all the water they take from the Delaware River. A consortium of companies built it after a severe drought in the mid-80s.
Dave Burd runs the facility.
DAVE BURD, Manager, Merrill Creek Reservoir: We take water from the Delaware River during periods of high flow, and during periods of drought we're able to release it back into the river for the evaporative loss from the generating stations that we support.
TOM BEARDEN: Do you have enough water here to get you through what's projected to happen this summer?
DAVE BURD: We have more water here than reasonably could be expected to be used during the worst drought of record, so we are protected.
TOM BEARDEN: The utilities say if they were forced to reduce their use of cooling water, they'd have to generate less electricity, which could lead to brownouts. The argument goes beyond just restrictions.
Water conservation advocates say development is at least partially responsible for the drought. They say parking lots and housing developments have paved over parts of the upstream watersheds. That causes rapid runoff of rainfall into rivers and streams, preventing it from soaking into the ground and recharging the aquifers.
Ella Fillipone heads the Passaic River Coalition.
ELLA FILLIPONE, Passaic River Coalition: We need the streams and the head waters that feed these reservoirs to flow. And that all comes from groundwater that is stored in the ground, and slowly releases.
The most important thing is to find ways to deal with recharging the groundwater and creating greater supplies.
TOM BEARDEN: The Sierra Club's Jeff Tittel agrees. He blames government mismanagement.
JEFF TITTEL, Sierra Club: There's no water planning. We're running water lines out into the critical areas next to our reservoirs to build more sprawl developments that end up robbing the reservoirs of water. It's just a total lack of planning. It's sort of "first come, first served," and it's very haphazard.
In fact, New Jersey actually is a state that could run out of water. It's probably the only state east of the Rockies that actually has that severe of a water problem, and the reason is the mismanagement of water, but also the over-development that's occurring here.
TOM BEARDEN: Water engineer Michael Barnes says running out of water is highly unlikely.
MICHAEL BARNES: Well, I think if they follow the drought emergency, it will be rare that we should run out of water completely.
Again, there's increasing levels of drought warning and watches and emergencies that add restrictions as the water supply will dwindle through the summer months.
TOM BEARDEN: But it's not impossible those taps could run dry?
MICHAEL BARNES: I would say it's improbable if we do our jobs correctly in managing what's left of the supply.
TOM BEARDEN: Jeffrey Rothefeder, who wrote a book about water shortages, says what's happening in New Jersey merely reflects a much larger global water crisis.
JEFFREY ROTHEFEDER, Author: It highlights a bigger problem that we're running out of water in a lot of places in the country, and a lot of places around the world.
When the drought ends, there will be less water than before, and less than ten years ago and less than 20 years ago. The drought here, most people view it as, "It's in my backyard; can't wait till it goes away; then I don't have to worry about water anymore."
But as the crisis is looming, we're going to all have to worry about it as a global issue.
TOM BEARDEN: Rothefeder says innovative solutions are needed, like importing or desalinating water, or pricing it to reflect what it actually costs to deliver, so consumers will appreciate its true value.
New Jersey's Commissioner of Environmental Protection, Bradley Campbell, says better stewardship must begin at the local level.
BRADLEY CAMPBELL, Commissioner, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection: We have heard very clearly from communities that they expect government to step up and manage resources, to strengthen water stewardship in the state, because I think the public understands in this drought, and certainly in the face of emergency restrictions, they understand that the only way communities can grow is if we protect their water supplies.
TOM BEARDEN: The challenge for all levels of government will be to come to an agreement on what to do, and then follow through with that solution even after the drought is over, something they have been unable to do in the past.