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NJ's Archaic Water System: the $40B Problem In Search of a Solution

Assembly panel takes up familiar, but seemingly insoluble, issue of clean water for the Garden State

Water Treatment

Where the projected $40 billion needed to fix New Jersey's aging water infrastructure is going to come from is a dilemma long recognized by the state's policymakers and legislators.

But no one has yet to offer any viable solutions.

The Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee took up the issue yesterday at a hearing in Trenton, and while there was no disagreement about the problem, little was said on how to resolve what virtually everyone agreed is a long-term issue that must eventually be addressed -- sooner than later.

“This is a long-term issue,’’ David Glass, deputy chief of staff at the state Department of Environmental Protection told the committee. “The challenges are in balancing the cost to ratepayers.’’

Hurricane Sandy magnified many of the problems. Wastewater treatment plants, left without power, dumped billions of gallons of raw sewage into New Jersey’s waterways. Facilities providing drinking water also lost electricity, leading to more than three dozen boil-water advisories for their customers.

How big is the problem? At least 20 percent of the state’s drinking water systems are over 100 years old, according to Andrew Hendry, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Utilities Association, which represents investor-owned water utilities.

NJ Spotlight is sponsoring a roundtable discussion of these issues and possible solutions next Friday, June 20, in Trenton. For more information or to register online . . .

According to Glass, the needs range from $17 billion for wastewater treatment plants, to $16 billion for stormwater issues, which are a large source of pollution, to $8 billion for drinking water improvements.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges New Jersey will face in the next two decades,’’ said Chris Sturm, policy director of the nonprofit New Jersey Future, an organization that has been in the forefront of bringing the issue before the public.

“We’re also going to need new funding sources,’’ she said. “Unfortunately our water infrastructure is in disarray.’’

In the short-term, the state, thanks to an infusion from the federal government, plans to spend $1.25 billion next year to upgrade both water and sewage treatment plants, according to environmental officials.

Without those investments, residents will see more drinking water main breaks that lead to boiled water advisories, more raw sewage being dumped into waterways, and more pollution discharged into rivers and bays from combined sewer overflow systems, which often fail during heavy rain events.

"We really don’t know what it will cost,’’ said Daniel Van Abs, a Rutgers professor, who recently wrote a study for New Jersey Future on the problem. Many of the most pressing issues confront the state’s 21 largest cities, according to the study.

Few argued with the need to fund these improvements, but Peggy Gallos, executive director of the Environmental Authorities Association, told the committee one problem is that local governments are siphoning off funds collected from ratepayers to help balance their budgets. The association is a trade group representing various water and wastewater entities.

“Keep the money where it is collected,’’ Gallos said.

The state’s failure to invest in its infrastructure mirrors a national trend of an unwillingness to upgrade water and wastewater plants, according to officials.

Environmental groups questioned why the state is failing to react to a problem virtually everyone recognizes.

“We know what the problems are, but we don’t have bills to fix them,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We need legislation to fix it.’

Jim Walsh, director of Food & Watch in New Jersey, suggested a tax on bottled water to help fund improvements to address the problem, particularly to help publicly operated drinking water facilities, which do not have the capital to invest in as do privately held investor owned water facilities.

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