Lawmakers expressed disappointment Tuesday with the response to the state’s new water quality management law during a hearing in Trenton that took place as Newark residents are drinking bottled water and homeowners across the state have water safety concerns.
The 2017 Water Quality Accountability Act established new requirements for 287 of the state’s public water systems to improve the safety, reliability and administrative oversight of their infrastructure. But compliance thus far has been uneven, members of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee found out.
“I think the honor system in this instance isn’t very honorable and isn’t working,” said state Sen. Troy Singleton, who chairs the panel.
Data from the state Department of Environmental Protection shows that 94 percent of water systems submitted the required paperwork, but just 71 percent of those certified that they’re in compliance with the new standards. The paperwork for 79 systems wasn’t properly signed.
“Well, it’s obviously disappointing we didn’t have 100 percent compliance from all water systems, with respect to the Water Quality Accountability Act,” said Singleton, a Burlington County Democrat. “Right now, this issue [has] become burned in everyone’s mind over how important it is to have clean drinking water.”
The act directed water companies to devise asset management plans that tally and test their systems, everything from valves and hydrants to cybersecurity and responses to safety violations.
“We need enforcement and we need to have the results, the compliance results, up on a website,” said Chris Sturm of NJ Future, an advocacy group that counts water infrastructure improvement among its agenda items.
The act applies to public water systems with as few as 500 service connections, and one expert who analyzed the state’s data said the compliance rate may be a function of the small size of some of the systems.
“There’s a positive relationship between size and likelihood of compliance,” said Manuel Teodoro, an associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. “Smaller systems that are owned by larger corporate utilities were significantly more likely to comply than the small systems that were either independent, private or municipal systems.”
Senators said they were willing to tweak the law. They also wondered if compliance would be improved if state utility regulators could consolidate systems.
“Are you frustrated with your ability to compel some of these smaller systems to join larger systems?” asked Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, a Morris County Republican.
“Yes,” said Joseph Fiordaliso, president of the state Board of Public Utilities. “I don’t want to put anybody out of business, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. But I think the customer would be served better if a lot of these smaller companies — these ma and pop ones, in particular — could be absorbed by the larger companies.”
Another lawmaker suggested that the level of inspections required under the act is daunting. Even signing off on the forms presents problems.
“Better not to sign a certification, than to sign one that’s not correct,” said Ocean County Republican Sen. Chris Connors. “Requiring every fire hydrant to be inspected, every valve to be inspected, some of which, we don’t even know where the locations are.”
Other lawmakers pushed for tougher fines and for a single, transparent clearinghouse for the compiled data.
The effort is still a work in progress, according to the DEP.
“We’re looking at those water quality rules to see if we can make them stronger,” said Deputy Commissioner Debbie Mans. “Because that is the standard, the criteria that we’re looking for, that reaches someone’s house.”
But one of Newark’s representatives said action was needed sooner rather than later.
“There really has to be a level of urgency when it comes to these discussions,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, an Essex County Democrat. “We can’t wait for a voting meeting to change a statute or for public hearings to come up with new regs.”