Water Advocates Issue ‘Workplan’ to Help With Massive System Upgrade

Jersey Water Works checklist is meant to be accomplished within the next year, but group estimates full modernization will cost $40 billion over 20 years

water dripping faucet
Advocates for improving New Jersey’s aging water infrastructure released their latest plan for fixing it on Wednesday, urging public and private utilities to fix leaks, stop sewage overflows, and prevent flooding during storms — and offering them advice on how to do it.

Jersey Water Works, a 20-member panel that includes state and federal officials, community groups, utility representatives, environmentalists, and academic experts, released its 2016 Workplan to assist the massive infrastructure upgrade that it estimates will cost $40 billion over the next 20 years.

The process of replacing aging pipes, improving storm-water management, and stopping sewage outflows is already beginning to happen, funded mainly by higher water bills and subsidized loans to utilities, and the new initiative is designed to facilitate the process by working with municipalities, state agencies, and community groups.

The group, which was formed in 2015, published its first checklist of tasks to be accomplished in the coming year. They include helping municipalities incorporate water-infrastructure management into sustainability plans; working with the state Department of Transportation to design and construct “green streets,” where rainfall soaks into the ground rather than running off into storm drains, and developing public-participation guidelines to ensure that all community members can contribute to local decisions about water-infrastructure investments.

The aim is to help water managers create more sustainable systems at a time when some 20 percent of drinking water is lost through leaky pipes; raw sewage flows into rivers or even backs up into homes in some places; and storm drains overflow more often because of the bigger storms that are resulting from climate change.

Dan Van Abs, a Rutgers University professor who sits on the group’s steering committee, said some utilities are already making the necessary changes, and that Jersey Water Works is aiming to facilitate that process. (Van Abs is a columnist for NJ Spotlight.)

“The purpose of Jersey Water Works is to try to improve the potential for success of all those regulatory, financing, and asset-management programs to provide good guidance to support regulatory changes that will make it easier for people to do the right thing,” he said. “We’re trying to improve the potential for success through all of the normal mechanisms we have in New Jersey for regulating and managing water infrastructure.”

A focus of the group’s work is the 21 municipalities that operate combined sewer outflows (CSOs) in which stormwater and sanitary outflows are mixed, and which flood more often because of increasingly intense downpours.

Jersey Water Works is helping the CSO authorities comply with a new state regulation that gives them five years to come up with a plan to control the overflows. “We’re a complement to the ongoing regulatory programs,” Van Abs said.

Other water utilities are facing increasing demands from the state to improve their asset-management programs as a condition of public financing, he said, and they can get advice on that from Jersey Water Works.

“More and more utilities are going to be pushed in this direction, and we’re just trying to make it easier for them,” he said.

Water utilities have been funding their infrastructure upgrades by increasing water rates for “decades,” Van Abs said, and that’s likely to continue as pipes, drains, and pumps age.

But higher water rates are not the only answer to stopping leaks or floods, he said. In some cases, utilities can achieve efficiencies by controlling their costs.

“You spend less money on emergency repairs; you spend less money on energy because you have more efficient equipment,” he said. “It’s not entirely going to be funded by increases in rates.”

Bringing New Jersey’s water infrastructure into the 21st century is the “loftiest” of goals, Van Abs said, but the new tasks set by Jersey Water Works are designed to be specific and achievable over the coming year.

Chris Sturm, managing director for policy and water at New Jersey Future, said public concern about the safety of drinking water has risen lately because of the lead scandal in Flint, MI, and in Newark schools.

“You should be able to turn on the tap and drink the water safely but we now know that’s not true everywhere, including in a lot of older schools and buildings and homes,” Sturm said.

She said Jersey Water Works is taking a multifaceted approach to the problem that isn’t necessarily about spending money.

“It’s about utilities finding smarter ways to get the work done that costs less; finding partners for green infrastructure and working with developers; and establishing a better relationship with ratepayers so that they understand the value that they are getting,” Sturm said.

But David Pringle, New Jersey campaign director for the environmental nonprofit Clean Water Action — which is represented on the Jersey Water Works steering committee — said the problem can’t be properly fixed unless the legislature and the governor get serious about doing so.

“The real challenge here is that our government is broken,” Pringle said. “There’s lots of good policies out there but the governor and the legislature are fiddling while Rome is burning. We can have the best-laid plans but until we get the government acting we’re not going to solve the problem.”