NJ Spotlight Fields Your Questions About the Garden State’s Water

Tom Johnson | July 17, 2017 | Energy & Environment
We asked our readers to tell us what they wanted to know about the state’s water. Here’s where we deliver the answers

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A few months ago, NJ Spotlight introduced an interactive feature that lets you, our readers, submit questions on a given topic. First up was water: What did you want to know about one of the state’s most precious resources? We’ve selected three of the dozens of questions submitted and answer them below.

Question: What percentage of New Jersey water purveyors are private profit-making companies? What percent are public? How do water rates and quality compare?

Answer: New Jersey has a complicated system of delivering water to the public. The state defines a Public Water System (PWS) as “a system that provides water for human consumption through pipes or other constructed conveyances, if such a system has at least 15 service connections, or regularly serves at least 25 customers at least 60 days out of a year.’’

Overall, there were 3,738 public water systems in the state, as of December 31, 2015, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Most of those are what the state calls non-transient non-community systems (747), such as schools or factories with their own wells, or transient non-community (2,387), such as rest stops or parks with their own wells.

The rest (584) are community systems, such as those that serve towns. Most New Jersey residents are served by these systems, primarily large- and medium-sized purveyors supplying 10,000 customers or more. They deliver water to more than 8 million people.

These systems include a mix of investor-owned utilities, municipal systems, and privately owned systems. (Approximately 400,000 homeowners depend on private wells for their water.) The state Board of Public Utilities regulates 25 of the companies delivering water to customers — nine are municipal, the other 16 are investor-owned. Other publicly owned systems establish their own rates, as do smaller privately owned purveyors.

Because there are so many variables, it is difficult to compare water bills across the state, given the differences in the size of the systems delivering the water, the source of their supply, and other factors such as the age of their infrastructure. For some big systems, it typically costs customers about a penny for each gallon used.

Nevertheless, those systems are required to monitor their supplies for a variety of contaminants that have been found to occur in drinking water, and they are required to notify customers when pollutants are found above acceptable state levels.

The DEP maintains that the quality of the state’s drinking water “continues to be excellent,’’ according to the most recent Annual Compliance Report on Public Water System Violations, which can be found at this link.

Question: Where are the polluted wells in New Jersey? And what has been done to bring the polluters to justice?

Answer: It’s a tough question. There are literally thousands of wells that have been contaminated to the extent that the water is no longer safe to drink. When found, they are taken out of service; some have undergone treatment and been restored to service. We asked the DEP to respond to your question. Contamination of wells can happen anywhere — rural areas, suburbs, and cities, according to Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the department.

“Over the decades, the DEP has responded to many situations in which private wells have been contaminated by a spill or discharge,’’ he said. “Whenever possible, the DEP paid for construction of water mains to connect those property owners to a safe municipal supply. When that was not feasible, the DEP paid for installation of individual treatment systems at each affected property.

In every case, the state aims to identify the source of pollution and may take legal action to force those responsible to fix the problem or reimburse the state. In some cases, the state may file a legal action known as a Natural Resources Damage claim, which can be monetary or require other compensation, to redress the public for the lost benefit of the natural resource, according to Hajna.

In recent years, however, the state has come under criticism from environmentalists for diverting money from such settlements away from restoring the damaged natural resource and using it for other purposes, such as helping balance the state budget.

Question: Are there alternative noncorrosive materials that can be used to eliminate contamination in water supplies?

Answer: Yes, they are routinely used by water companies to prevent leaching of contaminants such as lead into drinking water from lead service lines or lead fixtures. In some cases, the solution is to adjust pH to reduce its corrosivity. If the pH is too low, it is more acidic and can leach contaminants such as lead and zinc into supplies. In other cases, suppliers add a chemical, such as orthophosphate, as a corrosive inhibitor that forms a protective coating on the inside of pipes.

A question for our readers

What would you like to know about New Jersey’s finances? It’s a subject we cover exhaustedly here at NJ Spotlight, but we understand it’s a complicated issue. Tell us what you want to know.

To participate, add your question to the box below. (It may look like there’s already text in the box, but when you start typing, yours will appear.) We will review your questions and answer some of them in a future story.