NJ lawmakers take on aging drinking-water systems — and it could cost billions
New Jersey lawmakers haven’t solved the transportation funding issue, but they’re already turning some of their attention to another big-ticket infrastructure need: drinking water.
The state Senate last week approved creating a task force made up of six lawmakers that will study the topic. The Assembly had approved the task force in May. It should get its appointees this month, then take six months to hold public hearings, gather information and issue a report.
There are concerns about lead, particularly after the health crisis in Flint, Michigan, and leaky pipes. However one of the best things the task force can do is come up with options for funding the issue, said Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex.
Estimates for the needs start at $8 billion and go as high as $35 billion.
“We don’t need anything else,” Codey said. “We need a mechanism to fund the problem, which is huge, and get on with it.”
New Jersey has approximately 650 water systems. A recent report card on New Jersey’s infrastructure issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the drinking water supply systems a C grade – better than the overall D+ grade and tied for third-best out of 13 categories.
We still have some water systems that are from the Civil War that are brick and wood.
The ASCE report card said the systems were mostly built during a peak growth period, between 1890 and 1930, and to provide clean water between 1950 and 1970. A lot will have to be overhauled in the next two to three decades, says the report card.
“We still have some water systems that are from the Civil War that are brick and wood, if one can imagine that. Forget about lead,” said Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex.
Nobody’s forgetting about lead, though. The topic was raised regularly as the task force’s creation was considered this spring. Not only are some pipes made from it, but a chemical that can be added to water to prevent lead from infiltrating water can’t be added to uncovered reservoirs, which are common.
“What is happening in Flint could happen here if we don’t have a clean start looking at how to fix our drinking water infrastructure,” said the Sierra Club’s Toni Granato.
The Sierra Club estimated 25 percent of the water that flows through pipes in New Jersey’s older urban centers leaks out before reaching the consumer.
We have regular inspections for bridges but wastewater, water transmission systems, there’s just nothing out there.
Among the most pressing issues New Jersey faces regarding water and wastewater is a dearth of information about its water transmission systems, said Michael Sears, a civil engineer and associate vice president at HNTB Corp., who helped write those sections of the ASCE report card.
“There are a lot of data on wastewater treatment plants and reservoirs but very little information on how the water gets from the source to the user and from the user to the end point,” Sears said.
“There’s a great deal of effort needed to improve the monitoring of that type of infrastructure and gathering data – sort of what we do for bridges,” Sears said. “We have regular inspections for bridges but wastewater, water transmission systems, there’s just nothing out there. To me, that was what was most alarming.”
The creation of the task force passed without opposition in the Senate and Assembly.
Dennis Hart, director of utility operations for the Utility & Transportation Contractors Association, who formerly ran the state’s Division of Water Quality and Environmental Infrastructure Trust, said it’s rare to see the Legislature try to be proactive about water issues.
We need a comprehensive fix, not just roads and bridges and highways, but everything above and below them as well.
“It’s been my experience in 35 years that the state of New Jersey has a history when it comes to water resources related issues to focus on the crisis at hand and then forget about the crisis the minute that it has passed and move on to something else,” Hart said.
Michele Siekerka, the president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said the state needs a better understanding of its critical, vulnerable assets and get them on a long-term schedule for improvement.
“We need a comprehensive fix, not just roads and bridges and highways, but everything above and below them as well – water, wastewater, energy, telecommunications. In all those areas, we need long-term asset management planning,” Siekerka said. “That’s what we should be doing is having a comprehensive, long-term discussion and have it across the different infrastructure assets.”
However, there’s no getting around that it will prove expensive.
“It costs money, it does. Absolutely,” Siekerka said. “So we need to look at our priorities in the state, adjust our priorities and if we need revenue, we need to look at creative ways to raise that.”