‘Stormwater Utilities’ Can Help Clean Up the Problem of Polluted Runoff

Heavy rains can sluice untreated sewage into NJ’s waterways, but a proposed bill would try a solution already in place across the nation

water wastewater
It is a multibillion dollar problem and a major reason why most of New Jersey’s water fails to comply with federal clean water standards.

But with a price tag projected to run at least $8 billion, how to deal with stormwater runoff has largely defied solution in New Jersey. Rectifying the situation means fixing the combined sewer-overflow systems where runoff from storms mixes with untreated sewage to foul rivers, streams, and bays.

In a bid to deal with the longstanding problem, legislators are using a tactic already in place in approximately 1,500 jurisdictions around the country. They are moving on a bill (S-762) to allow dozens of urban areas to create stormwater utilities to help manage the runoff flowing into waterways.

The approach has been tried before in New Jersey, but never made it into law. “It’s a way to fund infrastructure improvements with regard to stormwater,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex).

With capital funds constrained not only for stormwater but for other needs, including fixing and replacing aging mains that deliver drinking water to homes and businesses, the creation of the authority could impose user fees to finance a system to control and minimize the runoff.

The problems are especially acute in New Jersey’s cities, where most of the state’s combined sewer overflows are located. Dating back to the 1930s, they were originally viewed as a state-of-the-art way to deal with both runoff from storms and treated sewage, according to Smith.

That assessment proved wrong. When it rains heavily, the combined sewer system cannot handle the extra flow, leading to untreated sewage spilling into waterways. The proposed bill would allow about 50 urban areas to create stormwater utilities.

For the most part, the proposal generated wide support.

“It provides additional tools for municipalities to use to address stormwater,’’ said Peggy Gallos, executive director of the Association of Environmental Authorities, a trade group representing wastewater and water plants.

“New Jersey is vastly behind in dealing with this issue,’’ agreed Dennis Hart, director of utility operations for the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association.

The state Department of Environmental Protection recognizes the problems posed by stormwater runoff, but does not want to deal with it, according to Michael Pisauro, policy director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association. “Our waters continue to be degraded because of stormwater runoff,’’ he said.

Twenty-five cities and utilities here are in the process of obtaining permits from the Department of Environmental Protection and developing five-year plans to deal with the pollution from the systems in their communities. Eventually, the problem is only going to be solved by a combination of structural improvements and so-called green strategies, such as setting up open spaces to capture runoff before it spills into waterways, according to environmentalists.

Creation of an authority may help the communities more effectively deal with the problem, according to Drew Tompkins of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “It increases the stability and predictability of funds,’’ he said.

Nationwide, the projected cost of deal with combined sewer overflow systems is projected to run $48 billion, according to a recent analysis by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.