Perhaps it is time to sympathize with the operators of the state’s water and wastewater treatment facilities, which suffered $2.6 billion in damage from Hurricane Sandy, according to estimates provided by the Christie administration.
With scant federal and state funding available to meet their needs, not to mention the fact that a blue-ribbon panel projected New Jersey must invest more than $44 billion in its water infrastructure over the next five years, it poses a difficult question.
Where is the money going to come from?
A Sandy Action Plan submitted to the federal government by the Christie administration proposes using $229 million in aid to improve water quality following the storm. Those funds would be leveraged with state money through New Jersey’s Environmental Infrastructure Trust to address impact of the superstorm on water and wastewater systems.
The trust is a financing mechanism created many years ago to leverage federal water-quality funds to match state appropriations to upgrade wastewater treatment plants.
The vast majority of New Jersey’s community water-supply systems experienced power outages during the hurricane, affecting 427 of 604 suppliers, according to the plan submitted to the federal government.
Those outages resulted in boil-water advisories in 37 different water systems, affecting more than 360,000 New Jersey residents. Some of the advisories extended until late December before they were lifted.
It was not much better — and arguably worse — for the state’s wastewater treatment facilities. Ninety-four plants in all 21 counties suffered failures, ranging from a loss of treatment capacity and broken sewer lines to an inability to treat wastewater coming into the plants.
As a result, three billion gallons of untreated sewage flowed into New Jersey’s waterways, fouling bays, rivers, and streams. To some, the answer to where the money is going to come from to fix these problems is: ratepayers.
“The thing that is the 800-pound gorilla here is whatever needs to be done, the utility authorities have to look at the ratepayers,’’ said Peggy Gallos, executive director of the Environmental Authorities Association of New Jersey, a trade organization representing wastewater treatment plants. “I wonder what the rate impact will be.’’
With only slightly more than $200 million in federal funding available, Gallo questioned how that will address the state’s needs to upgrade its water infrastructure.
There are other needs as well, according to the Sandy Action plan. It identified $17 billion of infrastructure improvements from the storm, while acknowledging federal funds would only account for about $1.46 billion.
“Significant needs remain for all infrastructure sectors,’’ according to the plan.
“It’s a good start, but the problem is not addressing the underlying triggers, which caused Hurricane Sandy, including climate change,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environmental New Jersey. “Our current infrastructure needs are a disaster waiting to happen.’’
O’Malley and others criticized the state for not dealing with rising sea levels caused by global warming.
“It’s a drop in the bucket for what’s needed,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Unless the state begins to map for climate change and sea-level rise, all of these projects will wash out to sea.’’