More Than 20 Percent of State’s Drinking Water Never Makes It to the Tap

Tom Johnson | January 9, 2015 | Energy & Environment
New Jersey’s decrepit water infrastructure responsible for huge waste, higher prices for homes and businesses

water dripping faucet
Every day, billions of gallons of drinking water are lost due to leaking, aging infrastructure, a national problem resulting in $2.8 billion in lost revenue annually, as well as higher costs to consumers, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It’s a familiar problem in New Jersey: Between 20 percent and 22 percent of the state’s drinking water is lost long before it reaches consumers, according to a 2013 study by Facing Our Future, a blue-ribbon, bipartisan panel of former cabinet members and senior government executives.

The crux of the issue is that the water infrastructure in states like New Jersey can be up to 100 years old. Replacing those decrepit water mains is not cheap, however. One projection says the upgrade would cost almost $8 billion in New Jersey.

To the NRDC, states like New Jersey, can more readily address these problems by adopting a more sensible water policy that establishes best practices for estimating, locating, and reducing water leaks.

“It’s a tool that helps identify where you can make the smartest investments,’’ said Larry Levine, a senior water policy for the NRDC. The environmental organization yesterday launched a new website, Cutting Our Losses: State Policies to Track and Reduce Leakage from Public Water Systems.

The NRDC said that New Jersey is not effectively monitoring losses from water leakage.

“Only rudimentary reporting is required; New Jersey should do more to promote water loss management,’’ the NRDC said. Reporting requirements only ask water suppliers to make simple estimates of water losses.

That is not enough, posits the NRDC. “You can’t measure what you don’t measure,’’ Levine said. “There is somewhat a lack of awareness.’’

Some states, such as Georgia, have stepped forward and required more aggressive reporting on water losses through annual audits, he said, even though they initially objected because of fears of another government mandate.

“What the utilities found after they went through the process, they were glad they did it,’’ Levine said.

The Delaware River Basin Commission, which supplies water to 15 million people in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, has adopted tougher reporting requirements, Levine said.

The city of Philadelphia water department also has adopted more stringent requirements, the NRDC said, but noted that their water losses remain substantial.

New Jersey has adopted a model used in other states that allows water utilities to add modest surcharges to customer bills to speed up replacement of aging water mains and other equipment.

New Jersey American Water, the state’s largest public water system, is taking a number of steps to address the problem, according to Richard Barnes, a spokesman for the company.

In the past three years, the company has spent about $700 million mainly on renewing its water distribution assets, Barnes said. In addition, it has created a team of leak-detection crews to determine where water is being lost in its system, he said.

Jim Walsh, New Jersey director of Food & Water Watch, argued that the solution demands more public investment in water systems. “Broadly, this is a problem affecting not only New Jersey, but the rest of the nation,’’ he said.

“We know we are losing a tremendous amount of leakage in these systems,’’ Walsh said, adding it costs ratepayers a lot of money because utilities have to make up the revenue they lose because of water not delivered to customers.

With other huge infrastructure investments needed — from wastewater treatment plants to transportation — it’s not certain if policymakers have the political will to ask residents to pony up.