Stormwater Utilities to Control Polluted Runoff Get a Push from Pols

New Jersey has been talking about overhauling decrepit stormwater systems for a good 10 years. Is real progress finally in the offing?

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Stormwater runoff agricultural
A decade-long legislative push to overhaul the system that controls runoff from storms that pollutes New Jersey’s waterways and increases flooding is edging closer to becoming law.

By a narrow 5-3 vote, the legislation (S-1073) won approval from an Assembly committee this past Monday. The bill, debated in one form or another for years, aims to fix a $15 billion problem — repairing and replacing aging, and in many cases failing, stormwater systems.

Those systems end up fouling a large portion of the state’s waters anytime it rains heavily, an occurrence that is becoming more common with climate change already impacting New Jersey. Aging infrastructure, much of it poorly maintained, fails to adequately control runoff from parking lots, streets, and farmland.

The result? A wide range of contaminants, including heavy metals, oil, and fertilizers wind up in streams, rivers, and bays — a major reason why only 5 percent of New Jersey’s waterways meet federal standards for being fishable, swimmable and drinkable.

Taxing impervious surfaces

The way to tackle the problem, advocates say, is to do what up to 40 other states have done: create stormwater utilities and give towns and other governmental entities the ability to impose fees on parking lots and other impervious surfaces to fund improvements to failing systems.

Critics, however, have dubbed the fees another “tax,’’ and another expensive expansion of government bureaucracy.

“I know people get offended at this, but it is a rain tax,’’ said Assemblyman Hal Wirths, a Republican from Sussex County, who voted against the bill in the Assembly Telecommunications Committee.

“There’s no limit on the amount of the tax,’’ Wirth added. “This is a new tax no matter how you cut it on the folks and businesses of New Jersey who can’t afford it.’’

No fixes without funding

But others argue the scope of the problem is so huge and municipalities so fiscally constrained, the problem will never get addressed without some new funding source.

The bill would allow towns and other entities to impose fees on owners of properties with large areas of impervious cover, like parking lots, malls, and developments. It would not, however, impose fees on farmland, the source of a wide range of contaminants, such as fertilizers.

“Unfortunately, many of our cities and towns can’t achieve this vision because the existing stormwater infrastructure is antiquated, and chronic underinvestment has failed to maintain it in a state of good repair,’’ Gary Brune, policy manager at New Jersey Future, argued in written testimony to the committee.

Polluted runoff is a particular problem at the Jersey Shore, endangering the long-term viability of Barnegat Bay, and causing beach closures with increasing frequency, advocates said.

Already approved in the Senate, the legislation now heads to the Assembly Budget Committee. If approved there, it heads to the full Assembly, where it could win final legislative approval.

Credits for work done

It may not happen quickly. Builders and commercial real-estate developers are pressing for amendments that would give them credits for stormwater systems they have already paid for and installed.

Thomas Troy, president of the New Jersey Builders Association, said credits ought to be given against new fees imposed on developments where stormwater management systems have been installed.

Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, agreed, saying most industrial facilities already manage their stormwater systems and pay substantial fees to the Department of Environmental Protection.

But environmentalists counter that the state should be wary about giving out credits to many of those systems.

“We know the current stormwater system isn’t working,’’ said Michael Pisauro, policy director of the Watershed Institute. In some cases, it doesn’t make sense to give them credits.

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, indicated that many of those systems were built decades ago. “Many of those systems don’t work and have to be replaced,’’ he said.