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Opinion: The Clock is Ticking for New Jersey to Control Combined Sewer Overflows

Combined sewers were developed by the Romans; isn’t it time that the Garden State took steps to bring waste control into the 21st century?

Daniel J. Van Abs
Daniel J. Van Abs

The Romans developed a technology, now called combined sewers, to move sewage and stormwater off the streets and out of the city. London revived the use of combined sewers in the 1800s. Many cities in this country also built combined sewers from roughly 1860 to the 1920s, including 21 New Jersey municipalities, where they still exist. Initially, the combined sewage and stormwater were discharged directly to rivers, lakes, and bays, getting it out of the city as quickly as possible. Only later was treatment added -- sometimes.

Combined sewers transport sewage from people, businesses, and industry every day. During dry days, all the sewage goes to a wastewater-treatment plant. When it rains, combined sewers also receive stormwater, which mixes with the sewage. Some of this combined sewage and stormwater makes it to the treatment plants. If it rains too hard (and it often does, dozens of times a year), excess flows discharge through combined sewer overflows (CSOs) -- untreated. That is, raw sewage from homes and businesses goes to the Passaic, Hackensack, Hudson, and Delaware rivers and their tributaries.

This is ancient technology requiring modern answers. Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Bayonne, Elizabeth, Perth Amboy, and Camden have the largest numbers of the 217 CSOs in New Jersey.

New Jersey is not unique. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reached enforceable agreements with nearly 800 municipalities to control their CSOs and improve water quality, including New York City, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Cincinnati, and Syracuse. New Jersey is somewhat late to the party but is now catching up. Unlike other states, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection has decided to play a lead role in achieving CSO controls, rather than having the EPA negotiate with (or sue) each municipality individually. The EPA has agreed to work with the NJDEP on this unusual approach.

Our CSOs have nearly all completed one step, catching solid and floatable materials before they go into the waterways.

On March 12, 2015, the next major step began. Final permits were issued by the NJDEP to CSO municipalities and the treatment plants that handle their sewage -- 25 permits in all. These permits require better operation of the existing combined sewer systems and treatment plants, to reduce CSO discharges in the near term. They also require the development of Long Term Control Plans that will describe the steps needed to fully control and treat the CSOs. The plans are due within three to five years, depending on the municipality. The clock is ticking. These plans will be the basis for implementation projects, which may take anywhere from a few years (in simple cases) to decades.

Several points are critical.

First, New Jersey municipalities are among the last in the entire nation to face these requirements. We have put off these costs for a long time, but that time is over.

Second, our municipalities are no different from others that have already finished or begun implementing CSO controls under such plans. Cities -- large and small, well off and very poor -- are doing this work. If Detroit must control CSOs, so must we. Nobody should think that we can avoid this mandate. The EPA is ready to step in with legal sanctions if the NJDEP permit approach doesn’t work.

Third, affordability can be used to argue for longer implementation periods, but not for a reduction in the requirements. The costs for all of New Jersey may be in the low billions of dollars, a major reason for spreading the costs over longer periods. The Long Term Control Plans will give us a price tag and an affordability analysis, critical components. We can’t know what funding is needed without a price.

Fourth, cities in other states would love to have the flexibility that our CSO communities will have under the new permit program. When others want to change their plans, agreement by federal courts is required. Negotiations can take years. Fifth, our late start is actually a great opportunity to learn from other cities that have already finished their plans and implementation projects, to reduce our costs and maximize benefits. Earlier would have been better, but this is where we are.

Finally, our CSO communities face a major choice. They can use traditional sewer-engineering practices, or they can use the CSO control requirements as an opportunity for community improvement. The choice comes from the primary cause of our CSO problems -- stormwater runoff. The traditional structural (“gray infrastructure”) approach is to simply accept all the stormwater and store it until the storm passes. Then the combined sewage is gradually pumped to the treatment plants. This approach requires the construction of large storage facilities and often the expansion of treatment plants. Chicago paid billions of dollars to build storage tunnels, plus operational costs for energy, treatment, and the like. Washington, D.C., is building a tunnel right now.

A newer approach flips the question. Instead of treating all the stormwater after it gets into the sewers, why don’t we keep the stormwater out of the sewers? This approach, called “green infrastructure,” has four major benefits. By keeping stormwater from the sewers, we reduce the CSOs and treatment costs. The techniques often use trees, gardens and other amenities, improving land values and neighborhood quality. Green infrastructure can be implemented gradually, while most structural approaches must be built all at once. Finally, much of the maintenance for green infrastructure does not require expensive outside contractors, but rather creates green jobs for city residents.

Green infrastructure cannot entirely replace gray infrastructure. Every municipality will require a mix of the two.

Mayors, councils, and utility boards need to think seriously about this issue. If a city must spend many millions of dollars on CSO controls, is it best spent on underground systems that nobody ever sees, or on green infrastructure that beautifies a city, enhances redevelopment potential, and improves the lives of residents? Other cities in the nation would love to have had this choice. New Jersey cities have it.

New Jersey is facing many costs all at once, for water supply and wastewater systems, transportation infrastructure, Hurricane Sandy recovery, and others. We have let problems go for a long time, and now the costs are upon us.

If we are smart, we will learn how to solve some of these issues through coordinated actions, such as redevelopment projects that also address water, combined sewer, road and transit needs. We can’t just leave it to the utilities. But whatever we do, rest assured that we have no choice but to pay, since we can’t afford to let our infrastructure fall apart or otherwise damage our state.

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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