A legislative task force is recommending that voters be asked to approve borrowing $400 million to pay for improvements to New Jersey’s aging water, wastewater and storm water infrastructure.

In all, the Joint Legislative Task Force on Drinking Water Infrastructure makes about three dozen recommendations in its report, which will be formally approved Monday. Many suggest changes in state law or regulatory priorities for the state Department of Environmental Protection under incoming Gov. Phil Murphy.

It’s the $400 million bond issuance that gets top billing, even though it amounts to less than 1 percent of what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates is needed to upgrade infrastructure in the state – more than $40 billion over the next 20 years, a number likely to increase as better inventories are conducted of the current water and sewer systems.

“So that’s a big number, but we can’t afford not to have modern, reliable drinking water, wastewater and storm water systems,” said Chris Sturm, the managing director of policy and water for the planning organization New Jersey Future.

“These water system are old. They’re out of sight underground, but they’re in too many communities falling apart,” Sturm said. “We have water and sewer main breaks that shut down businesses, cause flooding, interrupts commutes. We have lead service lines and plumbing fixtures that means our drinking water threatens children’s health brain development.”

The $400 million should be matched by local spending, the task force suggests. Sturm says the report also, importantly, calls for linking those funds to improved accountability and transparency.

“For example, you may not know what condition is your drinking water system in. How much treated drinking water is being lost through leaky pipes?” Sturm said.

The task force recommends that the state should require utilities to provide standardized metrics of their system condition and utility finances, which would be published by the state.

Witnesses told the task force one of the obstacles in New Jersey is that water systems don’t have complete inventories of their assets and their conditions. That will be addressed in part by a law enacted six months ago requiring such asset management plans, among other new testing, reporting, management and investment requirements for water systems.

“It really sounds like common sense, but it happens far too rarely, where water and wastewater systems are carefully inventorying their assets, their pipes, their pumps, their treatment plants, figuring out what condition they’re in, which ones are most critical – for example, which pipes serve the hospital – and then prioritizing upgrades,” Sturm said.

The report recommends that the requirement for asset management plans be expanded to wastewater and storm water systems.

The drinking water task force got its start in the summer of 2016 and held three public hearings – though none since last January.

It was organized in the wake of increased interest in the health problems posed by lead in drinking water. The task force devotes a section of its report to lead and suggests that some of the $400 million in borrowing should be used to replace lead service lines – the pipes that bring drinking water from the water mains into homes – in poor communities.

“Lead service lines actually pollute water that’s otherwise clean. And if the homeowner has young children under the age of 6, if they’re making infant formula, if there’s a pregnant woman, they’re really at risk,” Sturm said.

The report said it is estimated that as many as 350,000 homes and businesses in New Jersey may have lead service lines, and many older buildings contain pipes, solder and fixtures that contain lead.

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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