Use billions from infrastructure deal, COVID-19 aid to fix water problems in poor communities, advocates urge

New Jersey has a ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity to fix leaking pipes and drains, say incoming co-chairs of Jersey Water Works
Credit: (ChrisGoldNY via Creative Commons under CC BY-NC 2.0)
Wastewater management plant in Newtown Creek, with the skyline of New York City in the background.

New Jersey has a golden opportunity to fix its outdated water infrastructure, thanks to a potential flood of federal funding. And the new leaders of the state’s top water-advocacy group want to ensure the money will go to where they say it’s most needed.

Andy Kricun and Nicole Miller, the new co-chairs of Jersey Water Works are urging state and local governments and water utilities to focus on underserved communities when deciding how to use billions of dollars for repairing leaking water mains, replacing lead service lines or eliminating combined sewer overflows.

The expected $2 billion to $3 billion from President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure package, plus earlier funding from the American Rescue Plan and low-interest financing from the state, add up to an unexpected windfall for the public and private utilities that provide drinking water and wastewater services, and face a massive bill for bringing their systems up to 21st century standards.

“It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity for New Jersey as well as the whole nation, probably not since the (1972) Clean Water Act was funded,” said Kricun, former executive director of Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority. “We really have to be prepared for it to make sure New Jersey gets its fair share of the funding, and that most importantly, the funding goes to the communities that need it the most.”

Billion-dollar down payment

The new funding looks likely to be a big down payment on the $25 billion in infrastructure repair and replacement over 20 years that Jersey Water Works has estimated is needed to fix a system whose maintenance has been largely neglected since it was built decades or even centuries ago.

Jersey Water Works is a nonprofit that advocates for the repair or replacement of water infrastructure including lead service lines, wastewater treatment plants and combined sewer overflows. The group was set up in 2015 to educate the public and policymakers on the need to upgrade an aging system whose maintenance has been neglected in some places. The collaborative now has more than 600 members such as utilities, local governments, environmental nonprofits and academic institutions.

Kricun, who overhauled Camden’s wastewater system with the aid of low-interest loans from the state’s Infrastructure Bank, said the expected new funding could make a significant dent in the massive bill for rebuilding water infrastructure if the money is used to obtain long-term loans with principal forgiveness. He estimated that the new money could leverage as much as $15 billion to $20 billion, some of which would be used for projects in environmental-justice communities.

“This funding will go a long way toward helping those most vulnerable communities,” he said, in an interview with NJ Spotlight News.

Miller, the principal of MnM Consulting, a media and marketing communications consultancy, said environmental-justice communities are often faced with multiple water-related challenges such as lead in drinking water, toxic soil and air and combined sewer overflows, which dump untreated sewage and runoff into rivers and even streets during heavy rains.

“There’s a whole host of issues that we should be cognizant of when we’re making decisions on how money should be spent,” she said.

Both Miller and Kricun were already members of Jersey Water Works’ steering committee and were selected in May to replace Jane Kenny and Mark Mauriello who co-chaired the collaborative for the first six years of its existence.

Broad mix of participants

Amy Goldsmith, New Jersey director for the nonprofit Clean Water Action — which is a member of the collaborative — said its main achievement has been to bring together diverse stakeholders that include utilities, local governments, nonprofits, colleges, lawmakers and labor unions, and she expects that work to continue under the new leadership.

“They should continue to bring diverse voices together to advocate for strategically placed money in overburdened communities where people can least afford to make the upgrades,” she said. “Jersey Water Works is a trusted place where people from different backgrounds can network. We’re all in the same place on issues of equity and let’s not waste this incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

With the new funding, Goldsmith urged the group to advocate for a renewed focus on historically underserved communities.

That may mean ensuring that a community has the means to reach out for available funds, Miller said. Some towns don’t have a grant writer or the resources to find out what local people need, she said.

“It’s more than just getting the money, it’s being prepared to properly allocate it so it reaches those who need it the most,” she said.

Out of sight, out of mind

The biggest challenge for Jersey Water Works, Miller said, is educating regulators, professionals and the public on the need for water-infrastructure renewal. Because water pipes are buried underground, most people don’t even think about them until an emergency such as a water-main break or a sewer overflow that literally forces the issue into public view.

Public understanding of the issues has been helped by Jersey Water Check, a website that provides granular information about each drinking-water and wastewater system, such as whether it has lead service lines and whether the utility treats for bacteria or has an affordability program.

The system was launched by Jersey Water Works in March and is helping to build public understanding of water infrastructure, Miller said.

“When we have those conversations with people, they can feel more relaxed about having that out-of-sight, out-of-mind relationship with their water infrastructure because they know ‘I can check on it’,” she said.

Paula Figueroa, program manager for Jersey Water Works, based at the nonprofit New Jersey Future, predicted that the new leadership will emphasize the upgrade of water infrastructure in environmental-justice communities.

“Their understanding of equity and environmental justice is really solid, so the questions continue to be: How can we make water affordable for everyone, and that water quality meets the highest standards?” she said.

Kricun, now managing director at Moonshot Missions, a nonprofit that advises on water system upgrades and operation, said the new money should mean more support for projects like lead service-line replacement, water main repairs and upgrades to wastewater treatment plants. He said he will be calling for it to go where it’s most needed.

“The majority of funding tends to go to more resourced communities, and we don’t want that to happen here in New Jersey with this opportunity,” he said.

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