Op-Ed: Fixing Our Aging Water Systems Can Jump-Start Our Economy

Overhauling our failing water infrastructure will create jobs and improve the health of residents, especially New Jersey’s impoverished and at-risk communities
Mark Longo

The events of the past decade — from the Flint water crisis to the inability to supply clean, safe drinking water right here in Newark — have underscored an unfortunate reality: Our country’s water-infrastructure systems are dangerously inadequate and outdated. As a recent 60 Minutes report found, the problem extends throughout the country, and contaminated water takes a serious, long-term, and devastating toll on those exposed to it.

Congress, the state and local elected officials alike need to come together to champion water-infrastructure projects, replace aging mains, and invest in systems that meet our current needs and provide clean, safe water for all. Doing so will ensure public health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic and inject billions into our economy at a crucial time.

It’s heartening to see that Newark’s lead levels have fallen below the EPA’s maximum allowable threshold in recent weeks, which represents important progress in the fight for clean water. But there is so much more to be done across the state and in Newark itself, as aging infrastructure continues to leak massive amounts of drinking water and other cities and towns face unsafe conditions. Water infrastructure embodies the classic adage “out of sight, out of mind” — and our elected officials often only act to fix these crucial systems when it’s far too late and disaster has already struck, even as they continue contributing to worse health outcomes.

In Camden, students in schools had to use bottled water for decades due to concerns about the safety of their tap water and potential lead contamination in aging pipes. Paterson, Glassboro and other cities and towns all across the state continue to struggle with lead and other issues. And main breaks in Hoboken, Jersey City and across the state during the pandemic left many without clean water as they faced down another health crisis.

Despite these repeated and routine failures and the immense toll that lead and other contamination takes on the health of our residents, too little has been done to solve the problem.

To help mitigate lead contamination in our water, we need to replace old, unsafe pipes that connect our homes and businesses to the broader water system with modern, durable upgrades. We also need to replace water mains — many of them more than a century old and literally crumbling under our streets — with systems that are less prone to leakage.

Even when leaking water pipes don’t pose a public-safety hazard, their inefficiency costs consumers in higher water bills and wastes valuable clean water. At this point, 30% of clean, treated water leaks out of pipes, which artificially inflates costs. Now more than ever, we need to find ways to reduce costs systemically, and improving these systems is a smart investment.

Some water providers have begun major projects to upgrade mains and invest in new pipes, but there is far more work to be done. According to experts, we need $8 billion over the next 10 years to ensure a safe, adequate and reliable water supply. While that may sound like a hefty sum, it will help save money in the long run by minimizing leaks and expensive repairs and improving public health.

As the pandemic continues to shed light on challenges facing our economy and public health alike, we need to invest in solutions to both problems. Overhauling our failing water infrastructure will create jobs and simultaneously improve the health of our residents by guaranteeing a supply of clean drinking water for all, especially New Jersey’s impoverished and at-risk communities.

It’s a no-brainer for New Jersey. We urge our elected officials to act before it’s too late.