Will Biden’s spending plan allow NJ to replace all lead water lines?

New funding expected to give state a better chance of fixing a multibillion-dollar problem
Credit: Governor's Office
File photo: Replacing lead service lines in Newark

New Jersey has an increased chance of replacing lead service lines carrying water to homes, schools and child care centers because of federal funding in President Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package, according to advocates for water industry-renewal.

Although the funding is subject to congressional approval, campaigners for an overhaul of New Jersey’s creaking water infrastructure said the package will likely allow the state to take a significant step toward fixing a problem that has been highlighted by a drinking water crisis in Newark, as well as that in Flint, Michigan.

Newark’s success in replacing more than 18,000 of its lead service lines over the last two years, at no cost to homeowners, has become a template for fixing the problem effectively and efficiently. But it has not been clear how to replicate the Newark project statewide, given the estimated $2.3 billion cost of replacing the estimated 350,000 lines that remain, said Chris Sturm, managing director for policy and water at New Jersey Future, a nonprofit that promotes “smart growth” policies. New Jersey Future estimates it costs $6,600 to replace each service line.

Now, the prospect of $1 billion or more to spend on replacing the lines is fanning hopes that New Jersey is within reach of eliminating a problem that, through drinking water, is linked to childhood health problems including learning disabilities, impaired hearing, and nervous system damage.

Lessons taught by Newark

“It couldn’t be timed better for lead service lines,” Sturm said, of Biden’s plan. “In New Jersey, we now know that they can be replaced very efficiently and cost effectively because we’ve seen the City of Newark do that. So New Jersey utilities have a good blueprint for replacing lead service lines.”

But the exact number remains uncertain until contractors literally dig up the street, Sturm said. “You do a rough-cut inventory and then you fine-tune it when you are on the block, digging up lines.”

The possibility of significant new funding may also improve the prospects for a state bill to require public water systems to create an inventory of lead service lines, and then replace them within 20 years. The bill would also allow investor-owned utilities to recoup the costs of their own inventory and replacement programs. It has been passed by the Assembly and awaits a vote by the Senate’s Budget and Appropriations Committee.

What NJ stands to receive

Dan Van Abs, a Rutgers University professor and an expert on public water supply, estimated that New Jersey could get $1.35 billion of the total $45 billion proposed by Biden for lead service line replacement.

Since New Jersey has 2.7% of the country’s population, and an older housing stock which is more likely to have lead water pipes, it may receive a slightly bigger share of the total than its population suggests — perhaps 3%, or $1.35 billion, Van Abs suggested. That would be more than half of the amount that the Department of Environmental Protection has estimated as the overall cost of replacing the lead lines.

“We can make a lot of progress in a short period of time with that funding, while adding other funds from within NJ to reach 100%,” he wrote in an email. “Given that our society gains a lot for every year that children are not exposed to lead in drinking water, that seems a sound investment.”

Van Abs called the $45 billion national plan “a tremendous and valuable investment, even if NJ governments and utilities need to kick in some additional funds to complete the job.”

While the future of the Biden package in Congress is unclear, there’s evidence of strong bipartisan public support for funding lead pipe replacement, suggesting that lawmakers from both parties will approve at least that part of the Biden plan.

A national poll of 1,996 registered voters in late February found 80% of respondents favored spending to replace the pipes, including 74% of people who voted to reelect former President Donald Trump in 2020, and 85% of Biden voters. The results were consistent across cities, suburbs and rural areas.

Reasons for uncertainty

Despite enthusiasm for the proposal among water-industry advocates, Biden’s plan to replace “100 percent of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines,” as stated in his speech in Pittsburgh last week, there is uncertainty about whether it would include indoor lead plumbing in homes and schools, a problem that experts say would be very expensive to fix.

It’s hard to predict how much money New Jersey will get when Biden’s plan emerges from Congress, said Mark Mauriello, co-chair of Jersey Water Works, a 600-plus member collaborative that works for the renewal of water infrastructure.

But the replacement of lead lines appears to be a high priority for the Biden administration, and New Jersey has shown, through the Newark program, that it has done so successfully, both of which suggest a good level of funding for the Garden State, said Mauriello, a former DEP commissioner.

“I remain optimistic that the ultimate allocation for New Jersey will reflect the need that has been demonstrated and that the work we have done to highlight this need and show how it can be done efficiently and effectively, in Newark, will help,” he said.

Jersey Water Works estimates that the state needs to spend $25 billion over 20 years to fix leaking water pipes and upgrade storm drains. Whatever the final detail of the Biden package, it seems likely that the hefty price tag on renewing water infrastructure including lead service lines will be reduced by the new federal money, said Sturm of New Jersey Future.

The funding is “definitely going to make a significant dent” in the projected spending need, she said. “What people in Jersey Water Works are talking about is, how do we make sure the impact is long-term, and even after the money is spent, that we’re doing things smarter?”