Clean Drinking Water for New Jersey Residents Comes at Steep Price

New report puts price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars on upgrading state's ailing, antique sewage systems

Many of New Jersey’s 21 largest cities face, in some cases, hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to upgrade sewer systems that now pollute rivers and bays during heavy rains, according to a new report prepared by Rutgers University for New Jersey Future, a smart-growth organization.

And time is running out for those communities to fix the problem. Without action to comply with requirements, towns may face penalties or other legal action, the report said.

The 137-page report details a long recognized and unresolved problem in New Jersey, its failure to invest in a deteriorating infrastructure for delivering drinking water and safely disposing of sewage generated from residents in businesses.

The study is a clarion call to the state’s urban areas that they can ill afford to ignore a problem that results in more than 7 billion gallons of diluted sewage each year being dumped in New Jersey’s waterways.

“One point is clear: With aging water infrastructure, what can go wrong at some point will, unless preemptive action is taken,’’ said Daniel Van Abs, the principal investigator for the study, who works at Rutgers University. “Looking the other way does not make the system work any better.’’

The report indicated that without action, the problem could impede economic growth in all of the state’s cities. After decades of decline, many cities facing these costs are now experiencing economic growth faster than other areas, the report noted.

“Our cities are now, in some cases, turning into economic powerhouses,’’ said Chris Sturm, senior director of state policy for New Jersey Future, citing Hoboken and Jersey City as prime examples.

The report projects it will cost at least $2 billion to fix the problems, but noted New Jersey is falling way behind other states in dealing with so-called combined sewer overflow (CSO) systems. Where that money will come from is largely ignored in the study.

For some cities, the costs are staggering. A 10-year strategic plan for Newark estimated $500 million in needs, even split between water and sewer systems. Camden’s costs could also range up to $500 million, an expense that would tax the ability of residents and businesses in one of the poorest cities in the state, the report said.

The problems caused by CSO systems can lead to sewage backups to home and streets and waterways, as well as closures of beaches and shellfish beds.

The problem also has been documented in other studies, including a report by an independent bipartisan blue-ribbon panel issued more than a year ago. It projected the cost of fixing New Jersey’s aging wastewater treatment plants and drinking water facilities at more than $36 billion.

How bad is the problem? Up to 22 percent of the state’s drinking water is lost before being delivered to homes and businesses, according to the report.

The latest study primarily focuses on combined sewer systems. Once viewed as state-of-the art solutions for dealing with sewage and stormwater, they now date back more than 100 years. There are 217 such outfalls in the New York/New Jersey harbor estuary and the Hackensack, Passaic, and Delaware Rivers.

Typically, the lines carry sewage to a wastewater treatment plan, but during wet weather, the combination of stormwater and sewage taxes the ability of facilities to treat them, resulting in the discharge of raw sewage into nearby bodies of water.

Nationwide, 859 municipalities have or had combined sewer overflows, which, according to federal clean water laws, they must control to meet water-quality standards. Of these communities, 775 have either upgraded their sewage systems or adopted special plans to meet the requirements of the federal program.

New Jersey towns will soon be under the gun, too. Earlier this year, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issued draft permits for municipalities giving them a tight timeframe to adopt plants to reduce the pollution. Once final permits are issued (expected in January 2015), the cities will have two to three years to develop those plans and begin implementation, according to the report.

“With continued degradation of urban waterways, increased flooding from storm events, and threats to public health, we know that we can no longer afford to defer maintenance and upgrades to these systems,’’ said Chris Daggett, president and chief executive officer of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. ( The Dodge Foundtion is one of NJ Spotlight’s major funders.)

The Legislature also has sought to address the problems posed by combined sewer overflows, but its proposed solutions have found little support from the Christie administration.