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Opinion: Major Investments, Far Better Planning Needed to Clean Up Water in NJ

Cleaning New Jersey’s groundwater and surface water will require major investments in infrastructure along with an overhaul of state planning

Daniel J. Van Abs
Daniel J. Van Abs

New Jersey faces the same issues as many other developed areas. We built in places that seemed to make sense at the time but don’t seem too smart now, such as flood hazard areas near rivers and the coast. Mitigating flooding damages will require major investments but not doing so will cost when the inevitable hurricane or nor’easter hits, or even routine high tides, especially as sea level continues to rise.

Our land development patterns have damaged countless streams and lakes with sediment, bacteria and chemical pollutants. Though the Clean Water Act is over 40 years old, we are far from success in cleaning up our groundwater and surface water. Achieving clean water will require major investments to control both point sources, like wastewater treatment plants, and nonpoint sources, like polluted runoff. We have a decent track record on the point sources, but we are woefully inadequate regarding the nonpoint sources.

Densely developed areas of New Jersey nearly all have water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure, critical systems that make those areas economically viable. As my colleague George Hawkins, who for years ran the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water), would say when asked how much economic activity his utility supported in the service area: “All of it!”

Those facilities are aging out in most urban and suburban areas and will need massive investments to maintain and restore their functionality. Added investments are needed to add resilience to storms in hazardous areas. Water quality concerns will require still more investment to treat drinking water and wastewater. Stormwater facilities are taxed by the increased severity of storms; they just can’t handle the volumes of runoff being poured into storm sewers and basins. Investments are needed to upgrade and retrofit stormwater infrastructure that doesn’t meet current standards and that’s damaging streams and lakes with discharges that are too much, too fast and too dirty.

Facing up to cost of replacing infrastructure

Our utility rates mostly don’t reflect original water infrastructure costs. Much of our water pipeline infrastructure was constructed so long ago that the investment costs are now irrelevant, or using state and federal grants, or by developers who included infrastructure costs in the prices for whatever they built. Many more recently built drinking water and wastewater treatment plants are also aging and must soon be replaced or restored. We are only now facing the costs of replacing or restoring this infrastructure through utility rates (for most drinking water and sewer systems) or property taxes (for stormwater systems).

This infrastructure supports development patterns that are often highly inefficient. Many low-density suburban areas and rural subdivisions have very few customers per linear mile of water, sewer and stormwater pipelines, making maintenance costs per user much higher than in densely-developed areas. However, in many urban areas the massive shift from manufacturing means that many large industrial areas are now unused or lightly used, which also is an inefficient use of the infrastructure. Many of those lands are contaminated, and only recently are we seeing major redevelopment.

The result is that many developed areas are in hazardous locations, don’t make efficient use of water infrastructure, cause contamination of our natural water resources, or are served by infrastructure that is or will be failing. Or all of the above.

We reached this situation over the last 150 years or so, decision by decision. There was no grand scheme, no overarching plan. For most of that time, New Jersey did not have a state plan. Our laws were amended in 1985 to require a State Development and Redevelopment Plan (SDRP), but there has been major political opposition to having state agencies use it as the basis for regulatory decisions. Over time, the SDRP became highly detailed and too difficult to implement effectively. Then, in the Christie administration, it was totally ignored. Clearly, our state plans have not been effective, even when they could be understood.

The question is, What approach will bring us to the future? Doing nothing is untenable. Costs will mount, and system failures will escalate. Action is inevitable, but should that action be directed and if so, how?

We can’t continue to scrape by

We could just rely on continued uncoordinated decisions, but that is largely how we got to our current situation. Most economists, including those considered “conservative,” recognize that private markets cannot efficiently allocate public resources or the “public welfare” for two reasons. One, these do not have prices that establish market signals. Second, the use of public resources creates external costs and benefits that markets can’t capture. The problems should be obvious.

Continuing to expect that uncoordinated decisions will achieve great results brings to mind the aphorism that “insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.” Each decision may be well-meaning within its context, and yet result in a mess when it hits other decisions. How can individuals anticipate how millions of individual decisions might lead to harmful results?

A somewhat stronger approach is to focus state attention on a few major policy decisions, rather than getting into great detail regarding land development patterns. Political philosopher Carl Lindblom suggested this as one approach to complex societal issues in his 1959 paper The Science of ‘Muddling Through.’ The advantage is that the many governmental, business and private actors can continue their normal work with a relatively small set of directed changes. The Christie administration intended this approach when it suggested replacing the earlier State Development and Redevelopment Plan, a complex document, with a “State Strategic Plan” that was roughly 40 pages long. This approach never was completed, perhaps because the administration liked to make ad hoc decisions rather than plans.

A major problem with both approaches is that they are likely to create just enough action to get by for now. That is a mistake. New Jersey is in competition with the world for brains, investment and economic vitality needed for a high quality of life. We won't win this competition by just scraping by, regarding our development patterns, urban quality or infrastructure functionality.

Need to rescue NJ’s state planning process

A better but far more difficult option is to create a competition-class state. When people see New Jersey, it should look, feel and function like a high-level area that is worthy of long-term investment. When people hear about our state, they should not be hearing about disasters (physical, moral or financial), declining quality and inadequate responses.

The advantage of this approach is clear — becoming a high-quality place that competes well with other regions. However, getting to this level requires a new approach in vision, planning, investment and drive that New Jersey hasn't seen. In addition to a long list of other issues (not least our deplorable fiscal condition), we will need more robust water supplies that are better protected, as well as better and more cost-effective approaches to integrating water supply, wastewater, stormwater and other water issues (an approach known as One Water). We will also need to revise our developed areas, from small towns to suburbs to cities, so that they are desirable and our water resources and water infrastructure are cost-effective and maximize benefits. We must be competitive in all ways to attract new opportunities.

Doing all this also requires rescuing our state planning from the overly detailed and bureaucratic process it became. Bureaucracy has its uses — we want to live where people are treated according to the same rules, not favoritism. But visionary approaches aren't something that bureaucracy does well. The vision must come first, then the approach and only then the rules.

We need a state planning process that is both visionary and full of hardnosed pragmatism, drawing us to a stronger future. We need it quickly, too, to arrest the policy drift that sets area against area, interest against interest, rather than unifying us in a shared future. And this requires exemplary leadership that understands both the potential benefits of vision and the transactional steps needed to make hard choices feasible.

Daniel J. Van Abs is associate professor of practice for water, society, and environment at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. He has spent more than 30 years as a professional, manager, and advocate in the fields of water resources and watershed and regional environmental management. With Karen O'Neill, he is co-editor and co-author of "Taking Chances: The Coast After Hurricane Sandy" from Rutgers University Press. The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.

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