NJ’s Outdated Urban Sewer Systems Threaten More Than State’s Drinking Water

New report links NJ's overwhelmed sewer and stormwater lines to ability to compete regionally, nationally, and globally

Every year, more than 7 billion gallons of raw sewage is dumped into New Jersey’s waterways — a fault of an antiquated system in which combined sewer and stormwater lines can’t cope with runoff from heavy storms.

It is a problem too long neglected, many say.

If the state doesn’t begin dealing with its aging urban-water infrastructure, it could threaten efforts to revive New Jersey’s economy, according to a group of former government officials, smart-growth advocates, and others.

“For many reasons, upgrading our cities’ water infrastructure has been put on the back burner again and again, but we are now at the point where we cannot postpone it further without hindering the state’s economic prosperity and making us less competitive both in the region and the world,’’ said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future.

One of the major factors in failing to deal with the problem is its projected cost. It could run as much $40 billion to fix obsolete water and wastewater treatment systems, according to various reports. The cost will only rise the more officials delay addressing the problem, according to a study commissioned by New Jersey Future.

NJ Spotlight is sponsoring a roundtable discussion of these issues and possible solutions Friday, June 20, in Trenton. For more information or to register online . . .

The issue, particularly with combined sewer systems, may come to a head this year. By the end of the year, the state Department of Environmental Protection is expected to issue final permits for 21 New Jersey cities, which will give them three years to submit long-term control plans for upgrading combined sewer systems, or combined sewer overflows.

Needed upgrades will cost billions of dollars. Jurisdictions that fail to meet the deadlines for adopting and implementing these plans face the possibility of lawsuits and federal court sanctions.

The unanswered question is where is the money going to come from in a state facing a fiscal crisis for this year’s budget, which ends June 30, and next year’s as well.

“Funding is a key issue, but we need to take action despite the challenges we face,’’ said former Gov. Christie Whitman, who was one of 22 senior leaders who developed an agenda last month to try and address the problem. “This is a question of public health, public safety and economic competition.’’

A proposed “agenda for change’’ laid out by policymakers who met in Jersey City last month suggested a number of steps, including working regionally, identifying a variety of funding sources, and implementing “green first’’ solutions wherever possible. That third recommendation involves using vegetation and soil to manage rainfall, rather than pipelines.

Among the ways to finance the upgrades, the agenda suggested adopting legal options to prevent towns from siphoning off money from their own water utilities, a practice that has occurred with increasing frequency in recent years as communities struggle with their own fiscal problems.

The agenda also calls for working with other local departments, such as transportation and recreation, to leverage funds for joint projects.

It does not call for immediately raising fees to users of the water and wastewater systems to pay for the upgrades.

“Before seeking money from ratepayers, water utilities and departments should take aggressive action to optimize efficiency and effectiveness of their existing systems,’’ according to the agenda.

Even with pressing deadlines, participants in the May meeting agreed it gives cities an opportunity to create innovative and forward-looking infrastructure plans that not only will meet clean water requirements, but also create local jobs, generate greater private investment, and revitalize communities.

“Urban economic growth is essential for New Jersey, but it depends upon high-quality infrastructure,’’ said former Gov. Jim Florio, who participated in drafting the agenda.

Chris Daggett, president and chief executive officer of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, agreed. He said innovative approaches to upgrade water infrastructure includes other benefits as well, such as “cleaner rivers, increased public access to parks and waterfronts, job creation, and climate-change resiliency.’’

The foundation was one of the organizers of the May event, along with New Jersey Future, and the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread.

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