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Opinion: Cleaning up Urban Waters — Focus Where the People Are

We need to focus discretionary expenditures where they will do the most good for residents and competitiveness

Daniel J. Van Abs
Daniel J. Van Abs

When we look at the history of water pollution control, we see real progress where industrial and municipal wastewater treatment plants once dumped untreated or poorly treated wastes into our stream and coastal waters. However, most of that progress was made during the 1970s through 1990s, when a combination of new laws, enforcement, and lots of money made a big difference. Progress since then has been much slower, and in many waters either little progress has been made or we have gone backward.

Looking around New Jersey, many of our worst problems are in urbanized areas. This should be no surprise, as our urban areas are highly developed and our urban waters are damaged by a combination of legacy pollution (for example, dioxin in the lower Passaic River), massive amounts of contaminated stormwater, and raw sewage from combined sewer overflows in 21 urban municipalities. In most urban waters, swimming and eating local fish and shellfish pose significant health risks.

Urban water pollution matters. Most New Jerseyans reside in cities and older suburbs. Urban population densities are far higher than the statewide average, frequently above 10,000 and in some municipalities of Hudson County over 50,000 people per square mile. Many of those people are lower middle class or poor; they lack access to clean water and often can’t afford to go elsewhere. Finally, an increasing number of people seem interested in living in cities with waterfront areas. Urban water pollution can damage the development potential of these cities. We can’t afford to have urban growth choked off through lack of attention to urban waters. As a society, we can’t afford to ignore the equity issues of the urban poor who are forced to cope with urban water pollution along with many other problems.

The stink of sewage

If New Jersey cities are to thrive, urban water quality must be part of the package making our urban areas competitive in the national and global economy. We can’t expect young people and retirees to revitalize our cities if local rivers, bays, and estuaries are full of trash or stink of sewage and garbage. Many other cities near and far compete with us and happily attract these people when we can’t. Recent census bureau reports show that New Jersey would be losing population if it weren’t for foreign immigration. Clearly, those who are already here don’t see New Jersey as competitive. And just as clearly, the future rate of foreign immigration is subject to federal policies that may change. If immigration is constrained, New Jersey could start losing population for the first time.

We know that some urban areas attract businesses and workers despite high taxes and housing costs. All we need to do is look at New York City to recognize that people will pay (a lot) for attractive locations; the city’s population is at an all-time high, nearly equal to New Jersey’s. The question we face is how to create places that are as or more attractive to employers and individuals. Living costs are just one part of the puzzle. There are many other factors that need to be addressed, including redevelopment and improvements that create a strong sense of place, provide multiple amenities, and allow businesses to start and thrive. Planners and developers are doing good work along these lines. It isn’t enough.

Increasing amenity values

When we look around the nation and the world, many (though certainly not all) of the most competitive urban areas have attractive physical settings. Some are by mountain ranges that provide both beauty and recreational opportunities, such as Denver. That doesn’t work for New Jersey. Most, though, are by the ocean, bays, or large rivers, like nearly every Northeastern and mid-Atlantic city. What would New York City be without its harbor, or Baltimore without its waterfront, or Philadelphia without the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers? In each case, improved water quality has attracted new waterfront parks and development that increase amenity values and economic benefits. The same thing is happening along our Hudson River shoreline, where a river that once repelled people is now attracting major developments and recreational activities.

If we can agree that other parts of the nation are currently out-competing New Jersey as desirable places to live and work, and that natural amenities such as nearby waterways are one component of desirable places, and that our urban waters are still too polluted, how should we improve urban water quality as part of a larger drive toward competitiveness?

If achieving good urban water quality was easy, it would have been done. The amount and variety of pollutants and pollution sources makes this very difficult to accomplish. However, there are ways we can achieve incremental but fundamental improvements, now and over decades.

A broader revitalization effort

First, we need to view urban water quality not as an isolated objective, but rather as part of a broader revitalization effort to make urban areas more competitive as well as better for current residents, especially those who can’t afford to go elsewhere. This shift in perspectives is important. Urban water pollution cannot be solved all at once. Mandates certainly help, such as control of combined sewer overflows and the cleanup of hazardous waste sites. However, we need to think beyond regulatory requirements, putting funds into achieving what isn’t mandated but is valuable. We should focus discretionary expenditures where they will do the most good for urban residents and urban competitiveness. For example, diverting natural resource restoration funds to the general budget is both inequitable and foolish, focused on short-term rather than long-term benefits.

Second, we need to better leverage the funds we spend on mandatory water pollution controls. As we spend billions of dollars to reduce combined sewer overflows, we should maximize the broader benefits to our communities by greening neighborhoods and creating parks and redevelopment near the improved waters. Likewise, as the Passaic River cleanup progresses, we can create opportunities for urban neighborhoods to enjoy the river, with parks and redevelopment that facilitate access for all.

The role of science

Third, we need to improve our understanding of where pollution is coming from, and focus funds and regulatory activities on the most important pollution sources. Science will be critical to showing where action is needed, what improvements can be achieved, and what improvements have been achieved over time. We need to make the case for effective action in a way that has lasting influence.

Fourth, we need to ensure that our regulatory programs are not weakened over time. Too often, regulated parties generally push for lower costs and as soon as some progress is made, the initial urgency is lost. Where we can achieve the desired results for lower cost, great, but we can’t afford continued pollution. Efficiency is good, but not at the cost of effectiveness.

Fifth, we need to recognize that our historic approach to stormwater doesn’t work. We know that stormwater is a major or even primary source of urban water pollution, involving everything from litter to toxic substances. Despite this, stormwater is not regulated in the same manner as other major pollutant sources. No New Jersey municipality is required to achieve specific water-quality objectives through stormwater pollution control. Redevelopment should help improve the situation, not just avoid further harm. We will need to revise our entire regulatory system to address this issue. However, going back to the first point, we should do so in a manner that relates our regulatory requirements to our objectives for more livable and more competitive urban areas.

And yes, achieving urban water quality will have a major cost. But then, so does having noncompetitive urban areas. We must understand both issues and reimagine the possibilities.

Daniel J. Van Abs is currently associate professor of practice 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 and watershed and regional environmental management. With Karen O’Neill, he is co-editor and co-author of “Taking Chances: The Coast After Hurricane Sandy” from Rutgers University Press. The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.

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