Newark and its lead-leaching water service pipes may dominate the headlines, but infrastructure problems in aging drinking-water systems are pervasive across the Garden State.
That was the takeaway Thursday from the testimony at a second legislative hearing geared at implementing the Water Quality Accountability Act of 2017, which requires all sizable water purveyors to improve the safety, reliability, and oversight of their systems.
Last week, the committee heard that, while 94% of water systems have submitted the required paperwork to the state Department of Environmental Protection, just 71% certified that they’re in compliance with the new standards.
Experts estimate it will take $8 billion over the next decade to bring water systems in the state up to snuff. That amount does not include a similar sum that officials say is needed to fix sewer systems that overflow during heavy rains and allow runoff to drain directly into state waterways.
Lawmakers said that, in part, the hearings convened by the Senate Community and Urban Affairs committee serve to educate legislators and the public about the scope of the problem facing the state.
“Having as many different perspectives on this as possible, so we can arrive at dependable estimates, so ratepayers and taxpayers in New Jersey can understand just how deep this hole is, is critical for us,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, a Republican from Monmouth County.
Magnitude of the problem
The accountability act applies to the 300 water systems in the state with at least 500 hookups — ranging from small, community operations to big public systems, like Newark’s, and the even bigger private companies that serve the most customers in the state.
The new head of the biggest of those — New Jersey American Water — was among the speakers in Trenton on Thursday.
She too discussed the magnitude of the problem facing the state.
“The American Society of Civil Engineers rated the water systems across the U.S. at a ‘D+’ and the wastewater systems at a ‘D-,’” said Cheryl Norton, whose company serves nearly one of every three New Jersey residents. “And that’s not something to be proud of.”
Norton, who took over in New Jersey five months ago after serving in the top job in Missouri, painted a picture of her company as a responsible corporate citizen.
“New Jersey American in 2018 invested about $330 million across the state,” she said. “That’s about almost $1 million a day that we invested in infrastructure for our customer base, and we’re very proud of that.”
In all, New Jersey has 580 water companies of all sizes; 40% are owned by investors and 60% by local governments.
One senator expressed concern about the kind of situation that faces Newark, where lead contamination in drinking water has been traced to corroding lines serving individual properties. Replacing those pipes can be expensive.
Problem not limited to Newark
“From the curb into the house is the responsibility of each property owner, which really is really unfair because you can’t expect the property owner to incur the cost of possibly $8,000 to $10,000 dollars to change the hardware going in and the piping going into the house and the hardware within the house that has lead,’’ said Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson).
The problem with old, lead-leaching service lines is not limited to Newark.
“This is a statewide problem,” said Michael Travostino, government affairs director of the Associated Construction Contractors of New Jersey. “Because these pipes are underground, and whether it’s lead or the aging infrastructure itself, it’s out of sight, out of mind.”
In Newark, officials have formulated a $120 million plan to finance the replacement of all problematic service lines at no cost to eligible property owners who participate with the program and allow city work crews to gain access to their properties.
The plan was formulated after tests showed that lead was detected in a handful of homes at levels that exceeded federal action levels, despite filters installed on taps. More widespread testing is underway.
“While we do have it in the headlines now, I don’t want to see it leave the headlines,” said Evan Piscitelli, executive director of the National Utility Contractors Association in NJ.
Committee Chairman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) said the state still needs information from the operators of the water systems.
“We need to really get a better understanding of the asset management approach that all of our water utility systems are taking and whether or not they’re planning ahead and prepared for as the water infrastructure evolves. Right now, as we sit here today, we don’t have that information,” he said.