Water system managers plan for upgrades, but funding is scarce

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe says the way responsibility is divvied up among so many different entities complicates the work to fix the state’s aging water infrastructure. It also doesn’t help that it’s going to take billions of dollars over decades, and McCabe says they only have millions at this point.

“The responsibility for the operation, maintenance and repair water infrastructure is incredibly distributed among so many different entities,” McCabe said. “The towns and the utilities, I understand, are in a constant struggle to prioritize.”

McCabe says in many instances, utilities deal with expensive emergency repairs instead of focusing on long-term solutions. She stressed the importance of asset management at the Jersey Water Works Conference.

There was a point in the speech when the commissioner asked the audience if they had asset management plans and very few people raised their hands. She says that’s why the Water Quality Act is so important.

The Water Quality Accountability Act now requires the state’s roughly 300 water systems to have an asset management plan in place by April.

“Each water system and each community needs to decide its own priorities when it comes to limited funding. Some of the priorities that we have as a state are lead contamination,” McCabe said.

Another DEP priority is preventing sewer overflows.

“Often the stormwater system is combined with the sewer water system. When it rains and there is too much water in that combined system and you get, unfortunately, an overflow of sewage. Whether that goes into the streams or the streets, it is a danger to people’s public health and to our water quality,” McCabe said.

The federal government allocates money to the state for clean water and drinking water. Andy Kricun is the executive director of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, the third largest plant in the state. He says when it comes to waste, municipalities should tap into the resources available with the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank.

“One of the things we’ve done with our asset management plan is replace older equipment with newer equipment. Newer equipment has lower energy costs, lower maintenance costs, and because the debt service is spread our over 30 years and it’s less than 1 percent interest, the debt service costs are lower than the O&M [operations and management] savings. That’s how we’ve been able to improve environmental performance and hold our rates down,” said Kricun.

As for the money allocated for drinking water?

“The demand for drinking water financing is outpacing the Water Bank’s and the DEP’s current available financing,” McCabe said.

In October, President Donald Trump reauthorized the Safe Drinking Water Act for the first time in 20 years. It includes a low interest EPA loan program for states’ drinking water projects, but Congress needs to approve funding for the program.

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