Algae Blooms Symptomatic of Deeper Issues with NJ’s Water Infrastructure

Tom Johnson | August 6, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Problems like fertilizer runoff and combined-sewer overflows are well known, but state and legislators stymied by $16-billion-plus price tag to begin to rectify situation

Credit: Creative Commons
algae bloom heron
Lake Hopatcong, the state’s largest and most popular recreational lake, remains mostly closed due to a record-setting algae bloom, a problem affecting other lakes in New Jersey this summer, as well as elsewhere in the Northeast.

To Dan Kennedy, the problem is indicative of a larger problem — the failure of the state to address the overall condition of its water infrastructure system.

Each day, New Jersey loses an estimated 130 million gallons of drinking water before they ever reach customers. In times of heavy rainfall, more than 200 combined-sewer outfalls routinely dump untreated sewage into state waters.

“Lake Hopatcong is just another micro-emergency,’’ said Kennedy, director of environmental and utility operation at the Utility & Transportation Contractors Association. “We are bouncing from one issue to the next.’’

Behind the algae blooms

The algae blooms are primarily blamed on this summer’s higher-than-normal temperatures and intense, heavy rainfall that washed fertilizers and nutrients into lakes from antiquated stormwater systems. It could cost up to $16 billion to upgrade those systems, according to federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

The tab for fixing drinking-water systems has been projected at $8 billion, with up to $9 billion more to address the hundreds of so-called CSOs, according to various estimates.

Kennedy, a former assistant commissioner of water at the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the state needs to come up with a long-term plan to address the needs of its water infrastructure, much as it has created a trust fund for fixing and upgrading its transportation system.

“It is a basic building-block of our economy,’’ said Kennedy, referring to the water infrastructure. “We need it to be treated as such.’’

More problems than funds to fix them?

To some extent, policymakers have recognized the need, but have held back from devising significant programs to address the problem, largely due to its huge scope. A legislative task force was assembled a couple of years ago, but ended up with a $400 million bond issue to deal with drinking water, later scaled back to $100 million just to deal with lead-contaminated water in public schools.

Overall, the state DEP commissioner earlier this year projected the cost of replacing all the lead-service lines into homes and buildings to deal with lead-contaminated water at up to $2.3 billion.

“It is indicative of a larger problem. It’s important to start a process where people think about this as a statewide initiative,’’ said Zoe Baldwin, director of governmental affairs for the UCTA.

To that end, the association developed an 11-page paper suggesting ways to begin dealing with the problems, a proposal Kennedy suggested should be a starting point for addressing well-recognized needs.

Its top priority is to create a comprehensive water infrastructure investment strategy, one that invests $2 billion annually over 20 years, an amount that is probably unrealistic given all the state’s other pressing fiscal needs, such as huge deficits in spending for health are and pensions payments.

The group, however, suggested an annual water-infrastructure capital program be submitted to the Legislature each year, modeled on the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s TTF program.

More realistically, the group suggested dedicating at least 50 percent of the funding from natural resources damage lawsuits to existing clean water projects, as well as money from rejoining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. But some parties are looking to direct those funds to other programs.

Finally, the group argues the state should prioritize funding for specific areas—25 percent of funding to eliminate or reduce pollution from CSOs; 25 percent to eliminate existing lead service lines; and some funds going to projects that reduce pollution in Barnegat Bay. The group did not specify where the rest of the funds should go.