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State Still Struggling with Stormwater Runoff, Can New Bill Help?

Pollution from stormwater runoff is a $15 billion problem that won’t go away. Stormwater utilities could help Garden State get a handle on the solution

stormwater close

The state is reviving a decade-old idea to help New Jersey address a $15 billion problem to better manage stormwater runoff, an issue widely recognized as fouling waterways and exacerbating flooding.

Borrowing a concept already in place in more than 40 states, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee approved a bill (S-1073) to allow towns and counties to set up stormwater utilities as a mechanism for controlling pollution from runoff.

The bill, or some version of it, has been kicked around by lawmakers for years, but has had a tough time winning approval — and when it did, former Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the measure.

Sen. Bob Smith, a Democrat from Middlesex who is chairman of the committee and sponsored of the bill, is cautiously optimistic this time. “We’re not doing any victory laps because it’s going to be a very hard bill to pass,’’ he said, adding, “this is the best version of a stormwater utilities bill I’ve seen in a long time.’’

The stormwater situation

Stormwater runoff has long been recognized as a huge water pollution problem, as well as the most persistent, in the nation’s most densely populated state. Aging infrastructure designed to control runoff from parking lots, developments, streets, and farmland fails to prevent a wide array of contaminants, ranging from heavy metals to oil and fertilizer, from finding their way into waterways.

The problem is aggravated by combined sewer-overflow systems in urban areas, which end up spewing as much as 23 billion gallons of untreated sewage into rivers and bays.

The Murphy administration has identified stormwater management as a top priority. Its environmental transition committee even backed the creation of stormwater utilities and subsequent user-fee collections to support infrastructure improvements.

The current bill is permissive, not mandatory, but would allow a county, municipality, or other authority to collect fees to recover costs for managing stormwater. Such fees could be collected from owners of properties, such as parking lots, malls, and developments where runoff originates.

The bill faces opposition from the New Jersey Builders Association, which faults provisions dealing with developers who already have come up with stormwater management plans.

For the most part, environmental groups backed the bill, although some criticized a provision that would exempt agricultural land. Greg Remaud, NY/NJ Baykeeper, said the exemption will greatly diminish the effectiveness of the bill.

Roofs and gardens

Others argued the bill should mandate funding so-called green infrastructure projects, such as rain gardens and green roofs, as well as planting trees to deal with the problem. “This is a $15 billion problem,’’ said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters. “Having a way to pay for it is critically important.’’

Chris Sturm, director of policy and water for New Jersey Future, agreed, noting the state’s stormwater infrastructure is crumbling. “It is time for New Jersey to join the 40 other states that have authorized stormwater utilities to generate the revenue needed to undertake these costly repairs,’’ she said.

Unlike the past, the state Department of Environmental Protection endorsed the bill.

Besides the utilities bill, there is a measure under consideration in the Assembly to put a $50 million bond issue on the ballot in November to help pay for stormwater improvements.

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