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Opinion: Do Our Urban Water Systems Have What It Takes to Handle Rapid Growth?

What if urban redevelopment is successful? There are major implications for water and sewer systems if our cities bounce back and thrive

Daniel J. Van Abs
Daniel J. Van Abs

Years ago, I took a marketing course for environmental professionals. The instructors posed an interesting question. What would happen if the public really responded to our message -- could we handle all of the work that would result? They told us of startup companies that got so many sales that they went bankrupt. These companies weren’t prepared for success. The point was that we often want action, but aren’t really prepared for the effort needed if a lot of people actually decide to act.

For decades -- since the end of World War II -- we watched many cities lose population. Detroit is a poster child for this problem, having lost three-fifths of its population, but Newark and Camden City are good local examples. Newark’s population dropped from 439,000 in 1950 to roughly 275,000 by 1990, a loss of 37 percent. In the same period, Camden City dropped 30 percent, from 125,000 to 84,500. Jersey City fared slightly better, losing 24 percent of its people from a peak of 299,000.

Meanwhile, New Jersey’s population jumped by 3 million. Clearly, growth was in the suburbs while the urban core declined. (These losses were not uniform, however, as Paterson’s population actually grew.) Jobs often followed the people.

Now, we face a shift in trends that, if it continues, marks a partial reversal in fortunes. According to U.S. Census Bureau information, some of our suburban counties are now losing population, while many of our cities are once again experiencing population growth, especially in northern New Jersey. Population projections suggest that our cities will grow more quickly than the region or state overall through 2040, and the largest cities will grow even more quickly.

These projections match a national trend that began before the Great Recession and is continuing, where core urban areas are outpacing the growth of their suburbs for the first time in decades. In New Jersey, the recent evidence is mixed. Hoboken has completely rebounded from its population losses of 1950-1990. Jersey City is growing strongly and Newark’s population has finally stabilized. However, Camden City continues to lose population.

Let’s merge these two lines of thought. We want our cities to grow, to regain their economic strength, to be good places to live, work, and play. Achieving this objective will improve the lives of urban residents, strengthen New Jersey’s economy, and reduce the need for state support of urban schools and government. Nothing wrong with that, certainly. But an interesting question arises -- if our cities attract lots of people and jobs, can the cities cope with that success?

There are many aspects to a successful city, including its economy, employment opportunities, attractiveness and environmental quality, vibrancy, schools, transportation systems, crime rates, social involvement, governance, and so on. These issues are often in the news, for good and bad reasons. Let me focus on one issue that is less often in the news, typically appearing when something goes wrong -- water.

Our cities rely on three types of water infrastructure. Water-supply systems bring drinking water into our cities from sources such as reservoirs in northern New Jersey and groundwater supplies or the Delaware River in southern New Jersey. Sewers take wastewater from our homes, offices, and industry to a wastewater treatment plant, such as the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, the nation’s fifth largest. Stormwater systems take the runoff from our buildings and streets and send it off to a local stream or river, or put it into combined sewers where stormwater and wastewater are mixed.

Three questions should be addressed. First, do we have enough drinking water for these cities if they experience major growth? That question should be answered by the NJ Statewide Water Supply Plan, but the most recent plan was adopted in 1996, before these new trends were clear. Based on other research the answer appears to be yes, but there are questions for some cities and some new supplies may be required.

Second, do we have enough sewer and wastewater treatment plant capacity for the resulting sewage? The issue is complicated, as we already know that our combined sewer systems are sending raw sewage into our rivers and bays during rainstorms. Right now, every additional gallon of sewage makes the problem worse. Fixing this problem will be very expensive and may use up the remaining capacity in some wastewater-treatment plants.

Third, are the systems sound? The problem with all three systems in our older cities is that the pipelines are not just old, they are ancient. Many water supply lines and combined sewers are 100 to 150 years old. Not surprisingly, they are failing and will continue to break down ever faster. Far too little has been invested over the past century in maintaining and replacing these lines, and now we face a major -- and very expensive -- problem. There is no avoiding these costs.

In interviews conducted for a New Jersey Future report on cities with combined sewers, water-system managers noted that local redevelopment projects were having a troubling effect. Even where no changes were being made to the water supply and sewer lines, the redevelopment was often making these pipes break, due to ground vibrations from construction work. Some pipes are so fragile that just opening up the street above them can make them fall apart.

We hope for and need success in urban revitalization, but our cities for the most part are not prepared for the resulting demands on our water infrastructure. Jobs won’t stay in the cities if water lines keep breaking or sewage is in the streets. Every one of these cities needs to plan for success and then invest so that the new migration to urban areas doesn’t go to cities in other states. We are in a worldwide competition for talent and economic value. As the saying goes, doing what we always did will get us what we always got. That wasn’t enough before, and it is even less now.

Daniel J. Van Abs is currently associate research professor for Water, Society and Environment at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. He has spent more than 30 years as a professional, manager, and advocate in the fields of water resources, watershed and regional environmental management. The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.

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