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Sandy Highlights Serious Challenges to NJ’s Water Infrastructure

One key concern at NJ Spotlight conference, water and sewage systems suffer from out-of-sight, out-of-mind syndrome.

As Atlantic County Utility Authority (ACUA) President Richard Dovey sees it, the reason New Jersey’s water and sewer systems need more than $40 billion in repairs can be partially explained by two events that took place in Atlantic County recently.

Earlier this month, authorities closed Atlantic City’s Ohio Avenue Bridge -- a vital link to the neighborhood of Venice Park -- after engineers found the structure was in need of emergency repairs. The move attracted a fair amount of media coverage and attention from local residents, who could see the police tape blocking their usual route and knew they had to take a detour.

Contrast that, Dovey says, with a press event the ACUA held last week to show upgrades to a sewer pump station in Absecon. Even though the station will affect about a third of the county -- which is far more people than the bridge closure -- not a single journalist or reporter showed up.

Most people simply assume that when they turn on the tap or flush the toilet, everything will work, so Dovey says it’s hard to stress the importance of the water and sewer infrastructure to the public, especially since it’s largely underground. “We need to talk about this system more than just when it fails,” he said.

Dovey spoke as part of a panel on water issues at an NJ Spotlight conference held last Friday in Trenton titled, “Building a Sustainable Infrastructure After Sandy.” While Sandy dumped hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into the state’s waters and caused nearly $3 billion of damage to the water system according to DEP estimates, all the panelists agreed that it simply drew attention to the serious challenges the infrastructure was already facing before the storm.

Stephen Schmitt of New Jersey American Water – which serves about 2.5 million people statewide – said that while catastrophic water main breaks grab the headlines, running a system with hundred-year-old pipes presents daily problems. These range from reduced water flow and quality, caused partly by build up of sediment, to pipes that leak 20 percent -- and in some cases up to 45 percent -- of the treated water they carry.

And with Sandy in the rearview mirror, he said utilities need to be more proactive in their plans to upgrade their systems and prepare for future storms rather than simply responding to problems as they arise. Michele Siekerka, the assistant commissioner of water resource management at the NJ Department of Environmental Protection agreed that water utilities -- like cars -- require regular maintenance and repairs to extend their lives and make their operation more manageable and affordable.

She’s hopeful that some of New Jersey’s share of the federal Sandy relief money can be used for long-term planning and upgrades to the state’s water and sewer systems, though she noted she’s concerned about an overall trend of declining federal assistance on a yearly basis.

Dovey said the ACUA and other utilities are also worried about S-2844, a bill recently introduced by Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) that would permit county authorities to request access to an unlimited amount of water and sewer utility's unrestricted assets -- like rainy-day funds and long-term planning budgets -- to pay for county infrastructure projects.

Currently, such requests are capped at 5 percent of unrestricted assets.

Dovey said that while utilities like his own would be able to turn down such requests, they often feel pressured to comply, since the county executives who make the requests are the ones who approve the utilities’ budgets. He added that he understands the temptation, given the belt-tightening around the state, but he fears the move is short-sighted, and could be disastrous in the long run.

In response to an inquiry from NJ Spotlight, Sen. Norcross released a statement saying his bill would allow counties to “serve taxpayers more efficiently and address critical infrastructure needs.” He reiterated that “the initiative is entirely permissive,” saying, “Frankly, any action that is harmful to the county MUA [municipal utility authority] would be equally harmful to the county administration in the long run."

In the end, several of the panelists predicted that water companies will likely have to charge more for their services in the years ahead.

“No matter how unpopular it is, if utilities have a rate structure that simply recovers their annual operating expenses, and it doesn’t reflect the cost of ongoing maintenance and investment in infrastructure, those are false rates,” said Schmitt, adding that he feels not budgeting for long-term sustainability represents a “lack of understanding, and a lack of leadership.”

As an advocate for consumers, the state’s Board of Public Utilities has historically been hostile to rate increases, but it has to recognize that utilities have needs that go beyond their daily operation, said Robert Hughey with Facing Our Future, a nonpartisan group of former government workers that’s studied some of the state’s infrastructure problems. He stressed that the time to act is now. “The longer we put off maintenance in this state, the longer we put off reinvestment,” he said, “the more expensive it becomes.”

Scott Gurian is the Sandy Recovery Writer for NJ Spotlight.

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