Is NJ Ready for Water-Use Fee to Fund Billions in Upgrades of Aging Infrastructure?

State Sen. Bob Smith has long argued for a toll to help fund renewal of New Jersey’s century-old water system. He thinks the time just might be right to get it done

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It has never won support in the past, but a state senator is reviving a decades-old bill that would impose a fee on water use to fund the rebuilding of New Jersey’s aging water infrastructure.

In late June, Sen. Bob Smith introduced a two-bill package that aims to provide a stable and dedicated source of funding to fix leaking water mains, replace lead service lines, acquire watershed land and wetlands, and supply drinking water to areas whose supplies are contaminated.

Few would argue with the need. By various projections, New Jersey needs to spend $8 billion to fix its drinking water infrastructure, and roughly quadruple that to upgrade sewage treatment plants and stormwater systems.

Those problems have been long recognized by legislators, policymakers, and public interest groups, but the scope of the cost has prevented any viable solution from emerging.

Under Smith’s bill (S-2805), a new fee of $0.40 per 1,000 gallons of water would be imposed, a surcharge that would raise about $150 million a year. A companion bill (SCR-135) would dedicate the money to water projects.

Plenty of hurdles

Smith, who has sponsored a form of the bill for most of the 32 years he has served in the Legislature, is well aware of the hurdles the proposal faces.

“We’ve got a real problem,’’ he argued, listing a litany of water issues that need to be addressed, ranging from elevated levels of lead in drinking water in homes and schools, to ensuring there is enough potable water in times of drought.

“The question is: Are people willing to pay $32 a year per house for clean water?’’ he asked. “I think it has to be pay as you go.’’

In the past, the state has relied on huge bond issues to pay for water infrastructure projects, but given New Jersey’s debt load, some argue that strategy is no longer realistic. A legislative task force on drinking water infrastructure in January recommended putting a $400 million bond issue on the ballot, but that proposal has made little headway.

With recent reports of unsafe lead levels being found in scores of schools around New Jersey, Smith think the timing is right to tackle the state’s assorted water issues.

“We’ve got to go the extra mile. We know the infrastructure is 100-years old,’’ Smith said. “Big stuff takes longer, but the timing is right. I think it is possible.’’

Whether the state is willing to accept a new fee on water is uncertain, even conservationists acknowledge. “It is definitely worth having a conversation about, but I don’t know about its political feasibility,’’ said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

“People want clean drinking water, but there’s never enough money to do all the important work,’’ Potosnak said. “Without a sustainable source of funding, things are only going to get worse.’’

The legislation does offer quite a few exemptions from the new fee, such as for agricultural or horticultural purposes, and water diversions for firefighting, replacing contaminated water supplies, and transferring supplies between public water systems.

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