Group Eyes Ways to Rebuild and Preserve State’s Old, Brittle Water Infrastructure

NJ Spotlight News | May 25, 2016 | Politics
Jersey Water Works has a report on ways to reverse some of the adverse trends affecting the state's water supply.

By David Cruz

So many of us take it for granted. Turn on the tap and out comes clean, drinkable water. But increasingly our ability to deliver water to taps is being challenged by an infrastructure that is in varying states of disrepair and collapse.

“Water should be our number one asset, but what we’re doing is we’re wasting it; we lose about 20 percent of our drinking water through leaky pipes,” said Chris Sturm, managing director of policy and water for New Jersey Future. “We’re polluting it through things like sewerage overflows and we’re not delivering safe and healthy drinking water to our school kids.”

Sturm is with New Jersey Future, one of a broad coalition of organizations and individuals called Jersey Water Works, which has issued a report on ways communities can come together with government, business and environmentalists to reverse some of the adverse trends affecting the state’s water supply.

“The EPA estimates that the cost to upgrade our infrastructure will be $40 billion over the next 20 years, so it’s a big problem, and, like I said, there’s little crises that pop up around the state but when you put them together you recognize that this is a system that is not working well,” she said.

Take Hoboken, for instance. Remember how Sandy knocked the city out for weeks a few years back? Well, Hoboken is one of the cities that Jersey Water Works points to as an innovator with its award-winning Rebuild by Design flood prevention plan, still largely in the planning phase. Down in Camden, where Andrew Kricun runs the Municipal Utilities Authority, steps have been underway to not only rebuild the existing infrastructure but to also relieve the pressure on the system.

“We’ve developed a number of green areas, so this the first park we’ve built,” said Kricun. “Our main goal is to, in addition to providing green access and waterfront access is to reduce combined sewerage flooding. You know, if you live in a suburb where the storm water and the sanitary systems are separate, if it floods in your basement, that’s unpleasant but it’s just rain water. If it floods in your basement and it’s a combined sewer system, or if your kids are walking through a puddle, it’s combined sewerage that they could be wading through or combined sewerage in your basement so it’s a public health issue, a social justice issue.”

Camden County is ahead of the curve. The area around its massive sewerage plant is getting greener by the month, and access to the waterfront, long blocked by the industry that once drove the local economy, is becoming a reality. This five-acre site was once covered by a factory; today, it’s Phoenix Park.

“It was basically a source of combined sewerage flooding because of the five acres of impervious surface because if the contaminated soil, running off into the Delaware, creating a water quality problem, so we wanted to solve that problem and also to provide access for Camden’s residents to their river,” said Kricun. “They’re on one of the biggest rivers in the country. They’re two blocks away from it, but until this park was constructed, had no access to it.”

The idea is that once people get to see the river every day, they may become more aware of just how valuable a resource it is, and maybe join conservation efforts. It’s a role residents can play while groups like Jersey Water Works try to figure out how to come up with $40 billion to fix the infrastructure underground that they can’t see.