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Water System Reformers Rally Support for Huge Infrastructure Campaign

In coming year, members of Jersey Water Works have committed to building new water mains and developing guidance on green infrastructure, as part of an ambitious agenda

water wastewater
When wastewater treatment plants lost power during Hurricane Sandy, they dumped untreated sewage into NJ's waterways.

Advocates for a major overhaul to New Jersey’s aging water infrastructure are gathering more supporters from a range of interest groups amid growing concern that leaks, storms, and sewage overflows are threatening public health, flooding cities, and driving up costs for municipalities and private system operators.

Jersey Water Works, a collaborative that spans different sectors, is now supported by some 270 organizations or about twice the number it had when it started a year ago, officials said at the group’s second annual conference in Newark on Friday.

Supporters praised the organization for the growing number of participants and the breadth of their interests.

“I really have never seen anything like what Jersey Water Works is doing with its various stakeholders, and the passion and commitment just rising out of nothing,” said Debbie Mans, executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper, a member group that works to protect the ecology of the harbor estuary. “It’s very exciting.”

Officials said their work in 2016 has included an increased focus on lead in school drinking water; helping municipal leaders conduct water-loss audits; and launching a public-education campaign on the need to upgrade the state’s water systems.

For 2017, organizations such as the City of Hoboken, the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust, and Rutgers University have committed to initiatives including construction of new water mains, developing guidance on green infrastructure, and conducting research into how storm-water utilities can boost economic growth.

Some 30 initiatives for the coming year include the design and financing of a $50 million component of a combined sewer-overflow plan in an effort to stop flooding on the Camden waterfront, the building of a new water main by Middlesex Water Company, and the start of a capital improvement plan for water distribution in Hoboken.

By 2020, goals include setting minimum standards for water loss from pipes, requiring flood reports by utilities and governments, and keeping household water rates affordable.

The scale of the problem is too large and too complex for any one organization to tackle, and so requires participation by a wide range of stakeholders, officials say.

Jersey Water Works co-chair Mark Mauriello said the group’s biggest achievement has been bringing together a diverse group of people to tackle a massive problem that would cost an estimated $40 billion to fix.

“It’s not a partisan issue, it’s not a regional issue, it affects everyone,” Mauriello said after the meeting attended by about 300 people. “We are trying to create a wave of momentum around this issue in the hope that, working together, we can come up with some solutions that are practical, that can actually be implemented, to address some of the big challenges we have.”

He attributed the growing support in part to the national publicity focused on lead in the public water system in Flint, MI, an issue that prompted New Jerseyans to look more closely at their own water supplies.

The Flint case forced people to pay attention to an issue that had long been ignored simply because the deteriorating systems are out of sight, underground, Mauriello said.

“You heard a lot of people saying that if you can’t see it, you don’t necessarily recognize that it’s a problem. People saw that,” he said. “It wasn’t just Flint. It got people thinking: ‘What’s the condition of our water infrastructure?’”

The top priority for 2017, he said, will be helping the 21 New Jersey cities such as Newark, Paterson, and Jersey City with combined sewer-overflow systems (CSOs) comply with a mandate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop the systems dumping untreated sewage into rivers and streams during heavy rain storms.

“It’s a tremendous public health hazard, it’s an ecological nightmare to have these conditions,” Mauriello said. He called the EPA requirement “a bit of a kick in the pants that enabled us to highlight that issue.”

Advocates such as Mauriello are using the CSO issue as a way to educate the public on the need to repair water infrastructure generally.

“We’re trying to be really careful that we make this an issue of importance to all New Jersey communities, because they are all managing wastewater and storm water and flooding, and while they may not have CSO problems, the CSO issue was really the spark that enabled us to gather people around the water issue as a whole,” he said.

Keynote speaker Stephanie Miner, mayor of Syracuse, NY, told the conference that she is using a data-driven approach to identify problems with that city’s water system, which, at about 130 years old, is a similar age to many New Jersey systems.

Miner said she installed sensors on downtown water mains — an operation that cost only $50,000 — in an effort to predict those that were most likely to break, and make repairs in a proactive rather than reactive way.

“Reacting is the most expensive way to fix a problem,” she said, noting a water main break costs an average of $7,000 to fix.

Miner said she rejected an offer by a private company to buy the city’s water system, after concluding that privatization would not benefit ratepayers. She argued that government has a responsibility to provide clean water to its citizens, a point that she said was underlined by the Flint case.

She called Flint “an incredibly teachable moment” that built public support for the role of government as a provider of clean water.

“I was able to tap into people’s psyche to say it’s a core function of government to fund infrastructure,” she said.

Fixing the crumbling water system is more important to the city’s prosperity than cutting taxes, Miner said. “If you give money for tax breaks, do you really think people are going to live here if they don’t have water to make coffee or flush the toilet?”

Mauriello also called for a proactive approach to fixing infrastructure before it becomes an emergency.

“We’re going to spend this money at some point, so let’s spend it early and wisely as opposed to running around after the problems occur and throwing band aids at these problems which doesn’t really give us the longer-term solution that we need,” he said.

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia and often covers environmental issues.

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