By the end of the 19th century, the rapid pollution of the state’s major source for drinking water, the Passaic River, forced an emergent need to find new supplies of fresh water.
Official in Trenton made several attempts to find new supplies, but efforts to either purify river water or develop new reservoirs were stymied by infighting among municipalities and the private water companies that controlled distribution to the major cities. Finally a statewide referendum to purchase the Wharton Tract in South Jersey as a site for future water supply development went before voters in 1915. Most New Jersey families at the time owned private wells and were not about to approve using their tax dollars to build expensive water systems for the cities. The referendum was soundly defeated. Less than a year later, an exhausted State Legislature responded by dividing the state in half and mapping out a 12 county regional "water supply district" in Northern New Jersey. An "independent" state agency was also planned — a commission that would be free from the political entanglements that has thwarted all efforts by the state to develop new drinking water supplies prior to 1915.
The North Jersey District Water Supply Commission was established in 1916 pursuant to N.J.S.A. 58:5-1 et seq. for the "purpose of developing municipal water supplies" in the Counties of Sussex, Warren, Hunterdon, Passaic, Morris, Monmouth, Somerset, Bergen, Hudson, Essex, Union and Middlesex.
As its first order of business, the Commission began reviewing preliminary surveys made by Newark engineers in the late 1890’s. The Commission quickly succeeded in developing a regional consensus among municipalities and a massive 29.6 billion gallon reservoir project was launched in 1920 with construction of a dam across the Wanaque River in upper Passaic County. The cities and towns that decided to join the Commission in building water supply projects also would be responsible for paying 100 percent of the costs. The mandate of voters had become law: No state funds would be used to build and operate the new water supplies so urgently needed by New Jersey’s expanding population and industrial growth.
Success was celebrated on March 20, 1930 when officials from throughout New Jersey gathered to dedicate the new Wanaque Reservoir and its 21 mile aqueduct. The project was New Jersey’s first large-scale regional water supply system but wouldn't be the last. Over the years, the Commission continued to bring together groups of municipalities to develop, expand and upgrade drinking water resources in New Jersey. Today the Commission not only offers one of the highest quality water supplies in America, but does so at the lowest cost, by far, among all water purveyors in New Jersey.
For the past 97 years, the Commission has continued to be in the forefront of water resource development.