Criticism and praise for NJ American Water’s relationship with Camden

Under a scorching hot sun, with readily available water nearby for reporters, the Camden mayor and community leaders enthusiastically accepted a $985,000 grant. It was made by New Jersey American Water for rehabilitation efforts in the Cramer Hill section of Camden.

“It’s going to be used to rehabilitate homes. It’s going to be used to do some additional infrastructure work, and just to compliment and use as leverage so that we can go after additional resources to continue to beautify this community,” Camden Mayor Frank Moran said.

The for-profit American Water is receiving a promised $164 million in tax credits and other incentives as part its multi-million dollar relocation to the Camden waterfront.

Two American Water subsidiaries provide services in the city. It’s a relationship that community leaders say has been beneficial to the people of Camden.

“It isn’t just about privatization of a single sector. It’s about government and private sector working together on making sure the infrastructure meets the demands of the 21st century and the needs of the residents,” said Kris Kolluri, CEO of Cooper’s Ferry Partnership.

The privatization of water utilities in Camden has not been without opposition. The city was recently sued over water outages and for allegedly failing to publicly disclose which residents were affected and for how long.

The water shut-offs impacted Camden residents who failed to pay water bills. The advocacy group Food & Water Watch, which opposes privatizing water utilities, sued Camden for the names of those residents. The suit was settled last week.

“We found in Camden was that there were 33 households in Camden that have had their water shut off throughout 2016 and 2017. And we also know that there are problems with water affordability in Camden. That the typical water bill right now is actually unaffordable for nearly a third of Camden residents,” said South Jersey organizer for Food & Water Watch, Jocelyn Sawyer.

Camden resident Robert Santiago says things have not been going well since the utility took over.

“Pressure is low. Sometimes we have to flush the toilet twice,” he said.

But city officials say the partnership with American Water has been invaluable. The mayor says Camden has limited resources to run a system more than a century old and an infrastructure that is in need of repair.

“We have to do whatever we have to do to provide quality water for our residents. New Jersey American Water has proven time and time again, they’ve run a third of our operations for a 100 years, and it’s been a pleasure,” said Moran.

One thing is for sure: New Jerseyans are paying more for water. The utility, which serves 2.7 million people in the state, has implemented a provisional 12.3 percent rate hike, subject to a final decision by the state Board of Public Utilities.