If New Jersey’s aging network of water pipes and sewers wasn’t buried underground, it might be easier to convince the public that it is in such bad shape it needs repairs and renovations that would cost tens of billions of dollars.
But since it is out of sight and mostly out of mind, advocates for a massive upgrade to the system have been frustrated in their efforts to convince people that sound water infrastructure is essential for the economy, the environment, and public health.
That’s why Jersey Water Works, a multi-interest collaborative representing about 350 organizations, is stepping up its efforts to educate the public on the urgent need for an overhaul to the system and to build political will for the big-ticket spending that will be required.
The $25 billion fix
The organization says leaking pipes lose 130 million gallons of treated water a day, and dump 7 billion gallons of raw sewage into waterways every year. The price tag for fixing the system would be some $25 billion over 20 years, the group says.
In a report released at its annual meeting on Friday, the organization called for a bigger effort to raise public awareness of the importance of taking care of water infrastructure. It said elected officials can be effective spokespeople for the cause, and should help to convince the public that the cost of deferring maintenance will be higher the longer repairs are deferred.
“The most important message that the public needs to hear is that the costs of not making the investment now will be far greater in future,” said Andrew Hendry, chief executive of the New Jersey Utilities Association, a trade group for investor-owned utilities, during a panel on water-policy priorities for the new administration of Gov.-elect Phil Murphy. “The governor has to be banging the drum on this.”
Hendry warned that the high cost of fixing the pipe network may mean higher water rates for residents, and that lawmakers and elected local officials should not automatically reject the idea of rate rises just because they are politically unpalatable.
Still, building public support for water-system upgrades may have been helped by the passage of the New Jersey Water Quality Accountability Act, a landmark bill that became effective in October.
Demonstrating asset management
Panel chairman Chris Daggett of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation said the new law requires operators of drinking-water systems to show that they have inspected, maintained, and repaired their systems — a process known as asset management – before going to ratepayers for an increase.
Generating public backing for more investment will still be a challenge simply because water systems are invisible to most people. “This is an issue since its mostly underground, so most people don’t pay much attention to it,” Daggett told the meeting in Newark, attended by about 280 people.
But advocates said people are open to learning about the infrastructure issue, and that most place a high priority on having a clean, reliable water supply.
Debbie Mans, executive director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper, an environmental group, said she has been working with community partners to educate residents about water infrastructure.
“You just need to get everyone smarter about the issue,” she said in an interview. “They are very passionate, they are influencers in their community, and they are helping spread the word: ‘Hey, did you know, we have combined sewers, and here’s a solution, and this is what this green infrastructure is about.’”
Communication is key
Overall, better communication anticipates that residents will be asked at some point for higher water rates to pay the cost of upgrades, she said.
Surveys suggest that most people see a clean, reliable water supply as a high priority for state and local government. A recent poll of 1,175 New Jersey residents found that protecting drinking water was of paramount importance for most people, but that one respondent in five didn’t know what condition the water system is in, Jersey Water Works co-chair Jane Kenny told the meeting.
A Monmouth University poll in 2011 found that 91 percent of New Jerseyans gave the highest priority to protecting the water supply, ahead of nine other issues, including education and property taxes.
To build on those signs of support, utilities need to do a better job of explaining the need for more investment to the public, said the report, titled “Our Water Transformed.”
“Because water infrastructure has been an ‘invisible benefit’ for so long, few water and sewer utilities have developed the capacity for effective outreach,” it said. “Now they need strong communications to make the case for investment in water infrastructure understandable to both constituents and officials.”
Kenny urged elected officials and business leaders to use every opportunity to help raise public awareness.
Putting crises to work
“A crisis is a good way to galvanize people,” she said in an interview. “Every time there’s a water main break, make the point. Every time where there’s some issue where you have to boil water, make the point. Just be very aware of the fact that we need to educate people that we have this tremendous commodity that’s not funded properly.”
Kenny, who advised three former governors, said wide-ranging collaborations such as Jersey Water Works had a good chance of influencing past administrations, and so she hopes that the new initiative will do the same with the Murphy administration.
“The governor-elect has a tremendous opportunity to see what all these people are saying needs to happen, and we have a tremendous opportunity with some fresh faces in Trenton, to bring that to the table,” she said.
In a separate initiative launched at the meeting, 34 individuals and organizations including nonprofits and local government officials urged Murphy to raise public awareness on issues including lead contamination and combined sewer overflows, in which sewage mixes with storm water and discharges into waterways during heavy rains.
A to-do list of water initiatives for the first year of the new Democratic administration includes working with local officials to educate communities about the costs of inaction, and providing technical and financial support for upgrades from the Department of Environmental Protection and New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust.