Pandemic Pushes Back Filing Date for Plans to Stop Sewage Overflow

The deadline for filing plans to prevent raw sewage from spilling into state waterways during heavy rains has been extended, giving 21 communities a reprieve
Credit: Shannon Dosemagen via Flickr
Combined sewer overflow

Twenty-one New Jersey communities are getting a four-month reprieve to file plans on how to prevent raw sewage from spilling into the state’s waterways when aging combined sewer-overflow systems fail during heavy rain.

By Monday, the mostly urban communities were supposed to have filed so-called Long Term Control Plans with the state Department of Environmental Protection, but the deadline was extended because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The delay prolongs a drawn-out process for rectifying one of the state’s most prominent and expensive pollution problems: requiring better operation of the combined sewer systems and treatment plants that routinely end up dumping raw sewage into the state’s rivers and streams during a heavy rainfall.

What’s to be gained?

Reducing the problems caused by combined sewer overflows will improve water quality, increase access to waterways and reduce localized flooding, particularly in low-income communities, according to advocates.

The projected cost of fixing the problem statewide has been estimated between $8 billion and $14 billion, a price tag that has led communities, policymakers and others to repeatedly put off deciding what to do and, more importantly, how to finance the fixes.

The deadline extension affords the communities time to gather input from the public on the long-term control plans  before they are submitted to the DEP, according to Chris Sturm, managing director for water and policy for New Jersey Future.

Pushing for green infrastructure

In general, the state is pushing communities and regional utilities to propose so-called green infrastructure improvements — nature-based solutions to capture rainwater before it enters the CSOs — rather than large infrastructure upgrades to fix or expand wastewater treatment plants to handle more capacity.

The green infrastructure improvements focus on reducing the stormwater that flows into treatment plants by building things such as rain gardens, green roofs and rain barrels to prevent runoff.

But a long-term financial solution remains elusive, as many experts say it will take a commitment of local, state and federal resources to solve the problem. In New Jersey, there are 217 CSOs, mostly in urban areas like Newark, Jersey City, Camden, Bayonne Elizabeth, and Perth Amboy.

Green infrastructure is generally a less expensive way to address combined sewer overflows, but it’s still costly to the mostly urban communities struggling to deal with the problem. In draft plans submitted by the 25 permit holders, which include water utilities and other companies, the costs ranged wildly from a low of $400,000 to $1.2 billion by the city of Newark, according to a study by Jersey Water Works, a coalition of organizations pushing for improvements in the state’s water infrastructure.

By many estimates, most communities will balance green infrastructure projects with so-called gray infrastructure, which could involve expanding a facility’s capacity to handle stormwater.