Op-Ed: Private Water Utilities Stand by Record of Providing Infrastructure Solutions

Robert Powelson | December 3, 2019 | Opinion
New Jersey’s water and sewer systems face a massive backlog of infrastructure repairs and upgrades, which local governments can’t undertake alone
Robert Powelson

There is ongoing debate in New Jersey about how best to address water system challenges now and for generations to come. A harsh reality is that some government utilities in New Jersey have failed in their efforts to provide essential water and sewer services, putting public health at risk. Many New Jersey utilities face serious water infrastructure challenges that have resulted in lead in drinking water as well as tens of millions of gallons per year in sewage overflows into rivers and streams.

As local governments find themselves challenged to manage their water systems and fund necessary infrastructure investments, the private sector stands ready to help, offering experience, expertise, and access to capital required for infrastructure upgrades. More than 4 million New Jerseyans receive water or sewer services from private-sector water professionals whose water quality record is unmatched. Indeed, a recent analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data showed that New Jersey water systems owned and operated by private sector professionals are 60% less likely to have a drinking water quality violation compared to government-run systems.

In Trenton, the publicly owned and operated water system has violated the EPA Lead and Copper rule; issued repeated boil-water advisories due to treatment plant malfunctions and filtration problems; and been faced with water testing violations. The Trentonian reported in January 2018 that “over the past year, water has turned all colors of the rainbow spectrum — from purple to yellow — and Trenton Water Works could not guarantee to its customers that the water was safe to drink because a broken filter went undetected for a three-month period.”

It has been reported that Newark’s system is currently facing similar serious lead and water quality issues. As questions are raised about whether Newark is the next Flint, residents are demanding immediate action to address lead contamination as they rely on bottled water and filters in hopes of having safe drinking water for their families. Tragically, lead has been found in the blood of a quarter of the residents tested under the age of six.

And small systems are struggling, too. In fact, as drinking-water compliance researcher and university professor Manuel Teodoro testified before the New Jersey Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee, the state’s water problems are “most prevalent in small water systems.” Teodoro’s Safe Drinking Water Act compliance analysis found that, “all else equal, a New Jersey utility that serves 50,000 people commits about half as many violations as one that serves 5,000.”

Beyond ability of local governments

In short, these water challenges are driven by the fact that New Jersey’s water and sewer systems face a massive backlog of infrastructure repairs and upgrades, and the costs are too great for local governments to bear alone.

These basic realities are why legislation like the Water Infrastructure Protection Act are necessary. Laws like WIPA enable much-needed investments in failing water systems —systems that are endangering the health of our loved ones and neighbors. Without WIPA, these investments simply wouldn’t take place, and communities across New Jersey would continue to suffer with dangerously inadequate water services.

In addition, some private sector detractors argue that the regulatory mechanism known as the Distribution System Improvement Charge unnecessarily provides cash flow for water companies. The reality is that this regulated, modest charge pays for critical, urgent infrastructure projects that would otherwise be delayed. The charge is reviewed and approved by the independent New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and is a proven way for utilities to address aging infrastructure, helping to stop potentially dangerous system disruptions like water main breaks.

In an attempt to block private sector solutions, some have made misleading comparisons on water rates, ignoring the dozens of factors that must be considered, including investment levels, water source, geography and water treatment needs. Experts caution that given these factors it is nearly impossible to make a true apples-to-apples comparison of rates between systems.

Water companies reinvest revenues back into community water systems, which is one of the major factors behind their near perfect water quality record — their infrastructure is simply better and safer because of these investments. With Americans prioritizing infrastructure as one of the most important issues facing our nation, private water companies are leading the way: The ten largest companies invest more each year in community water systems than the total combined federal appropriation for water infrastructure programs.

That’s investment in the future of New Jersey and our nation. New Jersey’s private water companies are solely focused on providing proven, pragmatic solutions to serious water infrastructure challenges.