Big Plans for NJ Water Infrastructure Will Mean Bigger Bills for Customers

Water woes and next steps -- including special programs for low-income ratepayers -- subject of NJ Spotlight conference

Daniel Van Abs, associate professor at Rutgers University, and keynote speaker at NJ Spotlight's recent conference.
With New Jersey facing an estimated $40 billion in costs over the next two or three decades to fix its aging water infrastructure, the state may need to set up a program to help lower income residents pay their escalating water and sewer bills.

There is little question those costs will increase for ratepayers, most panelists agreed at an NJ Spotlight roundtable in Trenton on Friday, “Tackling New Jersey’s Woes: What’s Next?’’

“It’s going to be expensive,’’ said Christopher Riat, senior director of contract operations at United Water. “There’s going to be a great deal of backlash.’’

“The crisis is coming,’’ warned Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee. “I promise you that.’’

For poorer residents in urban areas where problems are the most pressing –underscored by seemingly weekly water main breaks in sometimes century-old water lines — the cost could be dramatic, according to Daniel Van Abs, an associate professor at Rutgers University.

“It’s a major issue for poorer households,’’ Van Abs said during a luncheon keynote speech at the event. While more affluent households will be able to absorb the increased rates, it will put more stress on households in the state’s urban areas, he said.

He suggested the state create a system like the one now in place for electric and gas customers, in which certain customers spend no more than 6 percent of their income on utility bills. The program is funded by a surcharge on electricity and gas paid by virtually all customers.

That system would not work as well with water and wastewater systems, however; unlike the electric and gas sector, which only has seven utilities statewide, there are hundreds of water and wastewater systems. “It’s one issue the state needs to confront on a statewide basis,’’ Van Abs said.

While the state and others have long recognized the need to invest in upgrading systems used to deliver drinking water to residents and to properly treat wastewater, the problem has largely been kicked down the road by policymakers, lawmakers, and past administrations.

The cost may even eventually rival the state’s current shortfall in its pension system, Van Abs and others said. As with the latter issue, the longer the state delays in addressing the need to fix its water infrastructure, the faster the systems degrade and the more it will cost to fix the problem, he said.

“The need is just as great and maybe greater,’’ said Charles Norkis, executive director of the Cape May County Municipal Utilities Authority, referring to other state priorities, such as the state pension system.

“The question is ‘when’ and ‘how’; not ‘if,’’’ Van Abs said. “The only choice we face is taking action or facing failure.’’

He framed the issue as simply a matter of physics, noting everything that is built begins to degrade as soon as it is finished.

“The laws of physics do not care what political party is in power. The laws of physics do not care about the current state of the economy. The laws of physics do not care about whether we have other priorities,’’ Van Abs said.

The cost of addressing the problem may be eased somewhat by a number of strategies being pushed by New Jersey Future, a smart-growth organization that is in the forefront of trying to raise public awareness about the issue. If the problem is going to be dealt with, it is critical the public understands the importance of the issue, panelists said.

A report released last week identified ways for communities to address the problem, ranging from working regionally, to identifying a diversity of funding sources, and implementing “green first’’ solutions wherever possible. The third recommendation involves using vegetation and soil to better manage stormwater runoff.

“It’s a problem we have to solve,’’ said Chris Sturm, director of state policy at New Jersey Future.

Others were not so optimistic, noting that the state’s land-use policies to protect sources of drinking water and prevent runoff from fouling New Jersey’s waterways are being weakened.

“The policy direction in terms of how we treat water is going down,’’ said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society.’

Stan Hales, program director of the Barnegat Bay Partnership, concurred. “Right now the problems we have are going to get worse,’’ he predicted.

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