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Task Force to Get Its Hands Wet Assessing NJ’s Aging Water System

Outdated infrastructure, water-quality issues to be addressed in six-month period given to recommending short- and long-term solutions

water testing

What should the state do about the aging system used to deliver drinking water to homes, schools, and businesses?

If legislation given final approval yesterday is signed by the governor, a newly constituted task force would have six months to come up with recommendations on what by one estimate is an $8 billion problem.

By a unanimous vote, the Senate passed a resolution (ACR-161) to set up a legislative commission to develop short-term and long-term solutions to the problems of protecting the quality of New Jersey’s drinking water and fixing its aging infrastructure.

The issue long has been recognized as a critical priority, but one that has emerged as more pressing in recent months following a wave of unsettling reports -- lead contamination in water in public schools, weekly water main breaks in urban areas, and unsafe levels of contaminants in public water supplies.

The resolution’s backers cite the water crisis in Flint, MI, where there was widespread lead contamination found in water supplies, a problem that has occurred in more than a few dozen Newark schools and other districts.

“Just like roads and railways, our water infrastructure needs to be assessed, repaired, or updated,’’ said Assemblyman Tim Eustace (D-Bergen), a sponsor of the resolution. “The task force will learn the extent of what needs to be done and then inform us of where we must begin to correct the ailing system.’’

It is sure to be an expensive proposition. New Jersey faces at least $8 billion worth of needed improvements to its drinking water infrastructure, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

One exemplifies the task. Approximately 20 percent of treated water leaks from aging pipes before it ever gets to the customer, an event that is not only costly, but could eventually hinder the ability to deliver necessary supplies to homes and businesses.

Others suggest that part of the problem is the state does not really know the full extent of the problem, lacking key information about the state of the infrastructure in many smaller systems serving the public.

“We lack consensus standards on how good or bad our systems are,’’ said Daniel Van Abs, an associate professor at Rutgers University, speaking at an NJ Spotlight roundtable this spring.

An aging water infrastructure means communities will become more vulnerable to flooding, contamination, even loss of power during a severe storm, according to Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union). During Hurricane Sandy, nearly one-third of the state’s 604 public water systems lost power, leading to 37 boil-water advisories.

“We need to know the good and bad pertaining to the state’s water systems before we can take the necessary steps to repair it,’’ Holley said. “This legislation helps us do that.’’

Environmental groups also fault the state for failing to update its water supply master plan, which has not been revised in nearly two decades despite growth in population and water use.

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a cosponsor of the measure, said assessing the state’s water system needs to be a priority. “A task force can help us identify the areas in need of strengthening in regards to the state’s water supply,’’ he said.

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