On the Water Front: Finding the Leaks, Getting the Lead Out

New Jersey’s aging infrastructure can waste up to 30 percent of drinking water before it’s even delivered to customers

water pipe leak
In a bid to avoid costly water losses, a legislative committee yesterday adopted a bill that would order water companies to conduct audits of their own systems to see how much water is wasted before it ever gets to customers.

The legislation (A-4415), modeled after similar measures in place in other states, is designed to address the well-known problem of leaks in aging water infrastructure that allow up to 30 percent of drinking water to be lost before it gets to consumers.

In another measure related to drinking water, the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee approved a bill (A-4139) to require healthcare facilities to test for and remove lead in drinking water found in their systems.

The legislation is part of a series of bills aimed at addressing problems with the quality of drinking water, ranging from lead-tainted supplies in schools and other facilities to toxic contaminants in public water-supply systems and private wells.

At the same time, a legislative task force is conducting hearings on the aging drinking-water infrastructure in New Jersey, much of its 100 years or older and prone to leaks and major water-main breaks. The federal government has projected the state needs to spend $8 billion to overhaul the drinking-water infrastructure.

Among the biggest problems are undetected leaks in older mains that are losing an estimated 130 million gallons of water a day, according to one recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Larry Levin, a water attorney for the NRDC, told the committee that water audits could be used to reduce water losses, and save consumers money. More than 50 million gallons of water daily could be recovered with better accounting, at an estimated savings of $10 million.

“Considerable savings can be garnered by doing these audits,’’ said George Kunkel, a former executive with the Philadelphia Water Department and an author of the study.

“The problem here (New Jersey) is as great as elsewhere given the age of the water system,’’ Levine added.

“It’s astounding,’’ agreed Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a member of the legislative task force studying drinking water, referring to estimated water losses. “Something needs to be done. All it takes is money.’’

But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said that is precisely the problem with the bill. It will identify and confirm a well-recognized problem, but it does not spell out how to find the money to fix the leaks. “This bill kicks the problem down the road,’’ he said.