Op-Ed: Community Engagement Needed to Solve Combined-Sewer Overflows

Nicole Miller, Mo Kinberg | January 31, 2020 | Opinion
Major infrastructure plans are being completed in towns across New Jersey, but most affected residents and business owners aren’t aware this is happening
Nicole Miller, left, and Mo Kinberg

Some of the biggest infrastructure plans in decades are being finalized in towns across New Jersey, and most affected residents and business owners have no idea this is happening. New Jersey mayors and utility directors in 21 communities with combined sewer systems have only six months to wrap up plans to protect residents from combined-sewer overflows (CSOs).

A CSO is an event that occurs when older sewer systems get overwhelmed with rainwater and dump sewage into local rivers and streams. This toxic water can even back up onto streets and into basements — putting residents, pets and local wildlife at risk.

In 2015, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection sought to address this issue by requiring these communities to develop Long Term Control Plans (LTCP) by 2020 to reduce sewage in our waterways. Over the past five years, these towns have measured, modeled and tested and are nearly ready to present their plans to the DEP. The major issue is that they first need to present their plans to their local residents, ratepayers and business owners.

These CSO Long Term Control Plans will impact communities and New Jersey for decades. The effects of CSOs are felt across the state and affect water quality and water access. For most of these towns, investing in these solutions is one of the largest and most expensive infrastructure projects in a generation. Millions — potentially billions — of dollars worth of infrastructure upgrades are being considered. It is imperative that the communities that will be paying for these changes be brought into the conversation.

The elected and appointed leaders of these communities need to choose solutions that will not only meet the base standards set by the DEP permit but also make full use of this financial investment to enhance the local quality of life by improving the built environment and reducing flooding and water and air pollution. Additionally, all of this can be accomplished while actively supporting local workforce development and adapting plans to meet a changing climate and rising seas.

Consideration of the following factors is critical in the final plans to stop sewage overflows:

Informed community input Members of communities with CSOs need to know that their current stormwater infrastructure allows sewage-filled rainwater to be dumped into their rivers and that local flooding onto streets and basements is contaminated. Residents, especially those most vulnerable to flooding and pollution — low-income and communities of color — should be involved in selecting the alternatives that will impact their health and their budgets for decades.

Equity Low-income and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by combinations of factors such as industrial land and water pollution, poor air quality from commercial trucking and manufacturing, regional or municipal waste processing, and the like. Infrastructure options such as disturbing existing green space or placing open stormwater storage tanks in these communities will only add to those burdens. Stormwater infrastructure considerations need to take into account what is equitable, not only what may be a less expensive or more convenient option.

Green solutions Green infrastructure prevents stormwater from entering our sewers during rainstorms by using engineered green solutions to absorb or store it.  These green solutions work in combination with gray infrastructure solutions such as tunnels or storage tanks. While gray infrastructure will have an important role in preventing CSOs, it should not be prioritized over green infrastructure solutions. Green infrastructure offers additional benefits to effective stormwater management, including reductions in water and air pollution, heat-island effect and even crime. Examples of green infrastructure that should be considered include rain gardens, permeable pavement, tree pits and green roofs. While these options do require periodic maintenance, they often cost less than their gray infrastructure counterparts.

Flooding Reducing CSO incidents is the primary purpose for these Long Term Control Plans, but preventing local streets and basements from flooding with sewage-filled stormwater runoff should be considered just as important.  Options such as disinfection may clear the water entering rivers from some pathogens but do nothing to alleviate flooding plaguing residents and business owners. Public funds can, and should, do double duty, both meeting regulatory requirements and addressing flooding issues.

Climate change Municipal leaders have an opportunity to make their towns more adaptable to changing weather conditions and rising seas. The large infrastructure projects addressing CSOs offer opportunities to rebuild a more resilient and adaptable landscape.

Jobs The infrastructure projects resulting from these plans will require installation and maintenance, and that means jobs that can, and should, go to local residents. Training programs for these jobs should start now, so the workforce is prepared when the infrastructure projects are ready to be built.

These Long Term Control Plans mark the completion of five years of planning and will be submitted on June 1, 2020. To fully meet their obligations to their communities, municipal leaders should carefully consider resident feedback and strongly consider the benefits of green infrastructure. To accomplish this, leaders need to first make it a priority to share drafts of these plans with their residents and local business owners.  Working together, elected officials and water utility directors can maximize this opportunity to improve New Jersey towns, reduce flooding, clean our waterways and make cities more resilient.