New Jersey environmental groups' celebration over new protections for water quality has turned to outrage as the Legislature considers a bill to delay new rules until 2012 or beyond.

The state was working to put in place a comprehensive plan to protect water quality and regulate development in sensitive areas of watersheds - 15 years after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered it to do so.

But a proposal introduced this month in the Legislature, one that environmental groups say plays to developers, could postpone that plan by at least two more years and possibly thwart it altogether.

In 2008, the state Department of Environmental Protection required counties, using grants up to $200,000, to figure out how to regulate sewer-line extensions and septic installations.

The goal was to prevent those systems from harming water with fecal coliform bacteria and nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen.

The measure also was aimed at limiting sprawl.

The county plans were supposed to be finished last April, though most counties have not completed them.

Companion bills in the Senate and Assembly would push the process off until April 2012.

"This is purely about [politicians] being in the pocket of the developers," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. "This is really a gutting of the rule."

Chris Eilert, chief of staff for Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen), who is the bill's sponsor and chief engineer for a construction company, said the senator was acting for counties concerned about being out of compliance with the law after missing the deadline - not for developers.

Sen. Steven Oroho (R., Sussex), a cosponsor, cited concerns about out-of-work electricians, plumbers, and bricklayers. He doesn't want to impose regulations restricting the job market by slowing development, he said.

"I worry about the working family of New Jersey, that we're putting them on the extinction list," Oroho said.

The bill has been approved by a Senate committee, and the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee is scheduled to hear it Monday.

Environmentalists say the management plans would have two major effects:

They would shrink outdated "sewer-service areas," regions where sewer lines were expected to be installed, in some cases 40 years ago, but where there may be critical areas for wildlife habitat or drinking-water protection. With sewer lines come dense development, Tittel said.

They would regulate how densely septic systems may be installed.

Tittel and others argue that there would be plenty of land still available for development, just in a way that protects prime resources, such as Barnegat Bay.

Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a group focused on shore protection, said about two-thirds of the harmful nutrients making their way into the bay are related to development.

"The science is there," he said. "This is not just the position of the environmental community."

Seventy-seven percent of the freshwater rivers and streams tested in 2008 didn't meet standards for fishing, swimming, or drinking, according to a state study.

While calls for cleaner water in the 1980s and 1990s targeted major polluters that were dumping pollutants by the pipeful into the ocean, the bigger concern today is about pollution from development that adds up, Dillingham said.

He said municipalities needed a master plan for wastewater management to protect the environment and public health, not just the tax base.

The DEP has opposed the bills.

Some counties are far along in the planning and may have to roll back their efforts if the proposal passes.

Gloucester County Deputy Administrator Gerald White said that the county was about 90 percent through, and that he expected to finish within six weeks.

He said he had heard minimal controversy over the proposed changes, which he said were still flexible.

"It's the road map to the future, not the present," he said.

Contact staff writer Chelsea Conaboy at 856-779-3893 or cconaboy@phillynews.com.