June 14, 1919: Jersey City Fined for Using Too Much Water

Boonton Dam on the Rockaway River

June 14, 1919: Municpal Journal and Public Works editorial. Public Control of Water. “Water companies and departments have appealed to consumers from time to time to restrict consumption in order to avert a water famine in the city, and meters are used largely to prevent waste; but we believe it is something new to impose a penalty for excessive consumption. As told last week, Jersey City, N. J., has been fined by the state $22,285 for using from the Rockaway river more than the 100 gallons per day per capita which had been allotted to it.

The right of state or federal government to guard the quality of river waters has been recognized and become familiar, and western states have long controlled the amount that could be withdrawn for irrigation; but limiting the amount that cities can use for their public supplies is a novelty. There is every reason, however, why power to limit the amount that can be used should rest in a central authority and be exercised on occasion. No one city has a right to monopolize a water supply because it “saw it first.” The water flowing in the rivers of a country comprises the run-off from every square foot of land in that country; and as the entire area yielded it, the entire area has a right in it. Moreover, to permit one or a few cities to monopolize all the water available in a state would be fatal to the growth in population and industrial development of the state outside of such cities.

The New Jersey plan seems to be a rational one and one that all states must adopt in some form, sooner or later; and the sooner, the less will be the confusion and individual hardship and the greater the benefit resulting therefrom.”

Commentary: This is an interesting footnote to the story I told in The Chlorine Revolution about the first use of chlorine in a U.S. drinking water supply. I do not know what action Jersey City took after being fined, but I can guess that they fought the fine in court. The water rights principle espoused in the editorial sounds more like a public trust doctrine which courts have only recently been applying to allocation of water rights in a river basin.

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