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Can Stormwater Utilities Help NJ Reduce Runoff Pollution?

Lawmakers revive bill looking at new ways of dealing with old problem, stormwater runoff fouling waterways and causing major flooding

water wastewater

New Jersey may take another stab at creating new utilities to deal with stormwater runoff, the state's most persistent problem fouling its waterways and causing major flooding.

The Senate Environment and Energy Committee is reviving a bill (S-1073) that would allow municipalities, counties, and certain authorities to create stormwater utilities, an approach used in other states to limit pollution caused by runoff.

The concept is not new in New Jersey, but it has failed to win final legislative approval in the past, even though the federal Environmental Protection Agency has ranked stormwater management as the state's most expensive water-related funding need at $15.6 billion.

With capital funding constrained not only for stormwater, but also for other needs, such as fixing and replacing aging mains that deliver drinking water to homes and businesses, the creation of a utility could impose user fees to finance a system to control and minimize runoff.

The idea already has won the endorsement of the environmental team that compiled a transition report for the Murphy administration, urging the governor to support legislation that allows user fees to support infrastructure for stormwater systems.

"It's really important for the state,'' said Ed Potosnak, director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, and a member of the transition team. "There's just no way to fund the cleanup of these stormwater systems now,'' he said.

In New Jersey, the problem is magnified where combined sewer overflow systems often mix runoff from heavy rainfall with untreated sewage to pollute rivers, streams, and bays.

Stormwater utilities are common in other states, such as California and Florida, and as many as 1,500 other jurisdictions across the country.

"It's worked elsewhere,'' noted Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. In New Jersey, a lot of the older infrastructure has fallen apart and is not adequately maintained, he said.

"It's one reason why only 5 percent of our streams achieve federal clean water standards,'' Tittel argued. "We have a serious problem in our waterways with nonpoint pollution. Unless we do something about this, we never will clean up our waters.''

When storms occur, rainwater runs off roads, roofs, and parking lots into stormwater sewer systems, carrying debris, bacteria, and toxic chemicals into waterways.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered dozens of municipalities to better manage their stormwater, a process that is leading towns to develop better plans for controlling runoff. Not surprisingly, the holdup is where is the money going to come from to fund the solutions.

The bill would permit municipalities and counties to finance the creation, operation, and maintenance of stormwater utilities through the imposition of user fees and the issuance of bonds.

Potosnak said the legislation should give a priority to funding so-called green infrastructure initiatives, such as rain gardens, green roofs, and planting trees.

The legislation, a previous version of which had been vetoed by former Gov. Chris Christie, is only up for discussion at Thursday's hearing of the committee.

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