Christie Signs Bill Providing Funds to Repair, Harden NJ Water Infrastructure

Law allocates up to $5B to future-proof water, wastewater treatment plants against extreme weather

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex)
With some of the state’s largest drinking water and wastewater treatment plants heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy, Gov. Chris Christie yesterday signed a bill aimed at financing repairs at the facilities.

The legislation (S-2815) establishes a three-year program that could allocate up to $5 billion, not only to repair the plants, but also to harden them against future extreme weather, a probability that has elicited broad bipartisan agreement of what is the “new normal.’’

Last fall’s superstorm offers strong evidence supporting that assumption. According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, more than 100 drinking water and wastewater treatment plants incurred more than $2.6 billion in damages as a result of Sandy.

Some of the damage was catastrophic. The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, the fifth-largest sewage treatment plant in the nation, was completely flooded during the storm, pouring hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into the state’s waterways, according to environmental officials.

Many of the facilities suffering damage had their own backup generating units — with enough fuel to cope with short-term outages — but the blackouts extended far beyond what was anticipated.

Under the bill, the state hopes to count on funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide much of the financing to bankroll the initiative.

In the short term, the state’s Environmental Infrastructure Trust would funnel so-called bridge loans to local governments and authorities, enabling them to get a jump on the needed work, with the expectation being that the loans would be repaid with federal dollars.

The Disaster Relief Emergency Financing program would supplement funds already doled out by the trust, which traditionally invests hundreds of millions of dollars annually to help make upgrades to improve water quality at the state’s wastewater treatment plants.

“It’s a game-changer to funding infrastructure in the state,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the bill’s sponsor, during a hearing on the measure in June. “This is all an effort to get New Jersey back on firm footing.’’

Earlier this spring, DEP officials said they hoped to leverage up to $570 million in federal recovery funds to provide up to $3 billion in improvements to both wastewater and drinking water facilities.

At that time, the agency projected that the money would be allocated to 370 projects: $342 million to recovery; $553 million to repairs; and $1.7 billion to make both water and wastewater treatment plants more resilient.

Even before Hurricane Sandy, the state faced staggering costs to upgrade its infrastructure. New Jersey needs to spend $45 billion over the next two decades to repair its drinking water and sewage treatment plants, according to environmental officials. That means investing $8 billion in its drinking water infrastructure and another $37 billion in wastewater treatment.

At least one environmental group argued the bill does not go far enough.

“Even though we have just been devastated by Hurricane Sandy and are trying to rebuild, this legislation does not even mention climate change adaptation or preparing for sea-level rise or storm surges. We are concerned that this money is just going out to sea in the next storm,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, a frequent critic of the Christie administration.

In other matters, the governor signed another bill (S-2817) to appropriate $780 million in zero-interest loans for environmental infrastructure projects in New Jersey.

“This initiative keeps communities safe and functioning efficiently and puts people to work,’’ Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex), a sponsor of the bill.

Environmental Trust executives have said the additional funding for Sandy-related projects would not affect the financing of traditional projects supported by loans from the agency.