Troubles with NJ Drinking-Water System: Easy to Spot, Costly to Correct

The most vexing difficulty with water system may be where to find the money to fix wasteful problems

water infrastructure
Here’s why it will cost billions of dollars to overhaul the state’s aging drinking-water infrastructure:

At least 20 percent of the system is more than 100 years old. Between 20 percent and 30 percent of treated water leaks from the system before it ever gets to the faucet. At least 137 public schools in New Jersey tested positive for lead in at least one drinking-water outlet this year.

No wonder a legislative task force yesterday began delving into what improvements are needed in the system delivering drinking water to customers. The lawmakers heard plenty about the problems, but few answers on where to get the money to solve them.

“The hardest part is where will the money come from,’’ conceded Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), co-chair of the Joint Legislative Task Force on Drinking Water Infrastructure.

Do not pin your hopes on the federal government, warned the other co-chair, Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex). The federal government has shaved funding for drinking water projects by 75 percent in recent years, he said.

All of which likely means that if investments are to be made in the future, it will translate into higher bills for customers, who now pay roughly a penny a gallon for drinking water, according to Andrew Hendry, president of the New Jersey Utilities Association. His group represents six investor-owned water companies, serving about 40 percent of the state’s population.

There may not be a consensus yet on how to pay for the needed upgrades, but there was wide agreement that the state’s economic future and much more depends upon a clean and affordable supply of water.

“Failure to invest in our water infrastructure will result in high costs down the road, damage to the state’s economy, and deterioration of our quality of life,’’ Hendry said.

To bolster investments, several speakers agreed that better data is needed on the state of the water infrastructure, along with guidance from political and industry leaders.

“Utility leadership will be needed to help people understand the needs, how their money will be invested well, and how we measure success,’’ said Daniel Van Abs, an associate professor at Rutgers, and former project manager for the 1996 statewide water supply plan, the last one completed by the state Department of Environmental Protection. (Van Abs is a regular contributor to NJ Spotlight.)

Van Abs also cautioned that the state needs to ensure that lower-income households are not harmed by utility rates necessary to boost investment in the systems. That is especially true in cities where up to one-quarter of the population is below the federal poverty line, he said.

One way to reduce costs is through improved efficiency, according to former Gov. James Florio, citing the projections that leaky pipes can lose up 30 percent or more of treated water before it ever gets to the home.

An underlying problem, however, is the fragmented nature of the state’s water system, with hundreds of municipal and regional public and private water utilities, Florio said. These smaller organizations have limited staff and consulting capacity, and less access to capital.