From lead lines to bacteria treatment, new website shows public how NJ water utilities are doing

Advocates want to use a mass of local detail to build case for massive infrastructure upgrade
Credit: (AP Photo/Mike Catalini)
Jan. 9, 2020: A worker hands a piece of lead pipe to a colleague as they work to remove water service lines in Trenton.

If you want to know whether your local water system contains lead service lines, meets state requirements for treating bacteria, spends money on annual maintenance, or has an affordability program for households, where do you turn?

Customers can now get all that and a slew of other information from Jersey Water Check, a website — believed to be the first of its kind in the United States — that consolidates granular information on the condition of each one of the state’s water systems and whether they meet a set of industry best-practice standards, in a user-friendly format in one place.

The website is the product of Jersey Water Works, a 600-plus-member collaborative that’s dedicated to renewing the state’s aging drinking water pipes, sewers and stormwater systems, which are estimated to need some $25 billion in repairs and upgrades over the next 20 years.

Following decades of neglect that have left miles of leaking water pipes and storm drains that dump raw sewage into rivers and sometimes streets during heavy downpours, advocates argue that it’s past time to overhaul a system that dates back more than 100 years in some places.

Jersey Water Works and its allies hope that assembling all the data in a user-friendly format will educate the public on the need for big spending on infrastructure upgrades and help utilities make the case for the new investment that’s needed for a renewal program.

‘Unearthing the water infrastructure’

“Until now there has been no easy way for people to find out who’s sending them their drinking water and who’s treating their wastewater,” said Chris Sturm, managing director for water and policy at the nonprofit New Jersey Future, and an architect of the new website. “We think that this is a big part of unearthing the water infrastructure. It’s hidden underground, and you don’t think about it unless it’s a problem. This allows people to get a sense of what’s going on with these water systems.”

Data was drawn from the Department of Environmental Protection — whose website was seen by advocates as less accessible than their new tool — as well as utility websites and questionnaires sent to utilities, Sturm said.

By increasing public awareness of water systems and their needs, the site is aimed at building support for future improvements, she said. “Helping utilities establish stronger relationships with their customers is also going to help them build support for the kind of investments that will be needed over time.”

In Evesham Township, Burlington County, for instance, customers of the publicly owned Municipal Utilities Authority can see that the utility met requirements for protecting the drinking water supply against harmful bacteria in 2019 but that it also had 64 lead service lines connecting water mains to individual houses that year. Still, the website shows that the utility replaced two of the lead lines in 2020.

What residents can find out

Evesham residents can also discover — under a Jersey Water Works benchmark for the condition of a water system — that the average household paid $131.25 for water in 2020, and that the utility had a capital budget of $11.6 million for drinking water infrastructure in 2019.

In Ridgewood, Bergen County — where 15 lead service lines were replaced by 2020 and the utility, Ridgewood Water, complied with a state law on water-system maintenance — its director, Rich Calbi, welcomed the new website as a valuable tool for helping ratepayers understand water-infrastructure issues.

“For a consumer who doesn’t know much about the utility and is trying to find the answers, it puts a lot of it in one place,” he said.

For a hot topic like lead, for example, the site will allow a ratepayer to find out exactly what the utility is doing about it in that community, Calbi said. “Someone might get a notice around lead in their community, and wonder why they’re not hearing about it when it’s a big issue in a neighboring community, and now they’re able to see what they’re doing about lead service lines, how many there are and how many have been replaced.”

He predicted that the site will broaden the discussion over how to upgrade water infrastructure from the utilities to the public “who ultimately have a big say in how the money gets spent and what the priorities are.”

Jane Kenny, co-chair of Jersey Water Works, predicted that the new site will help to put customers and utilities on the same page in understanding the needs for upgrading infrastructure.

“Utilities will benefit from customers understanding what the needs are and how they will be met,” Kenny said. “The emphasis on collaboration and transparency will result in smarter infrastructure upgrades, something that will benefit all of us for years to come.”

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