New Jersey’s water infrastructure is failing, and the state must act now before the problem worsens. This theme echoed repeatedly at the third annual Jersey Water Works Conference on December 1, which attracted nearly 300 participants from a wide range of professions. Jersey Water Works, a collaborative organization of over 350 members, advocates for transforming New Jersey’s aging water infrastructure. The group recently conducted a survey that found protecting drinking water is the top environmental issue for New Jerseyans, rating twice as high in importance as cleaning up toxic spills or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, when asked to select a top water priority for New Jersey’s governor and Legislature, at least three-quarters of New Jerseyans chose securing safe drinking water. As Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said in his welcoming remarks, “Water is the most important resource we have.”

Getting the message across

Many New Jersey residents value clean drinking water, but there is a lack of public awareness about how precarious the state’s aging infrastructure is. Problems like leaking pipes, combined sewer overflows, and lead in water are not as obvious as potholes. As Mike Elmendorf, president and chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of New York State said, “People don’t think about this stuff until it’s broken.”

Conference afternoon panel

Afternoon panel (left to right): Asm. John F. McKeon, Debbie Mans, Nathaly Agosto Filion, Andrew Hendry, Christopher Daggett

Several speakers discussed how to communicate the importance of investing in water infrastructure. Debbie Mans, executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper, recommended visible projects that demonstrate publicly what infrastructure is and why it’s important. She cited stormwater capture projects created by Newark DIG, including a community rain garden and the conversion of a concrete traffic triangle into a green infrastructure project. Similar programs in Newark and Jersey City allow residents to “adopt” catch basins, encouraging them to learn about stormwater management and water in general. Nathaly Agosto Filion, chief sustainability officer for the City of Newark, said, “One of the beautiful things about green infrastructure is creating a sense of ownership.” Elmendorf and Mans emphasized that infrastructure investment leads to economic development. Clean, affordable water is key to making the state attractive to residents and businesses. According to Asm. John F. McKeon, “New Jersey will be an economic juggernaut if it can provide clean, cheap water.”

When infrastructure fails, it’s an opportunity for education. “You don’t want to waste a crisis,” noted Dan Shapley, water quality program director at Riverkeeper. “Make sure everyone knows what the crisis means and what you can do to solve it.” For example, in New York State, the Sewage Pollution Right to Know act made routine sewage releases front page news. This helped infrastructure advocates to secure increased funding.

Coalitions across boundaries

Richard Lyons, retired executive director of the Albany County, N.Y., Water Purification District, recounted how clean-water advocates secured $2.5 billion for water infrastructure investment in New York State’s 2018 budget. Assembling a diverse coalition was critical: “We brought together people who were on opposite sides of the table.” The group included unions, contractors, utilities, environmental advocates, and municipal leaders. Their message was broad: not only does clean water protect public health and the environment, it also creates new jobs, provides economic development opportunities, and increases recreational opportunities.

Conference morning panel

Morning panel (left to right): David Church, Mike Elmendorf, Richard Lyons, Dan Shapley, Lisa Plevin

Elmendorf noted that the coalition included “interesting odd couples,” and even groups that are usually adversaries. Lisa Plevin, former chief of staff of U.S. EPA Region 2, described it as groups usually “paid to disagree with each other.” Ultimately, they left small conflicts aside to pursue a larger goal—and going in together made the legislators pay attention.

The importance of equity

Kishia L. Powell, commissioner of the City of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management, gave a keynote speech that connected water infrastructure to affordability, equity, and workforce development. As commissioner, Powell addressed the department’s failing infrastructure and negative customer perceptions. More than half of the department’s growing operating budget was earmarked for paying debt accumulated from two consent decrees. Water service rates had increased by 250 percent over a decade, making affordability a pervasive issue.

Keynote speaker Kishia Powell

Keynote speaker Kishia L. Powell

To address affordability while still investing in new infrastructure, the department found innovative ways to increase revenue and reduce costs. It achieved $20 million in cost reductions through new operational efficiency measures, such as decommissioning an old steam pump station and reducing energy consumption in new buildings. A public-private partnership began generating revenue through nutrient recovery. And in 2016, Atlanta voters approved reauthorization of the city’s Municipal Option Sales Tax, which provided dedicated funds for water and sewer infrastructure.

Green infrastructure is mitigating Atlanta’s flooding and sewer capacity issues. The city’s flagship project is a two-acre stormwater detention facility and park that can handle a 500-year storm. It cost $26 million—$14 million less than a grey infrastructure solution—and drew $500 million in economic development. But there was an adverse unintended consequence: the displacement of nearby long-term residents, who could no longer to afford to live in the area because property values increased. To address this problem in the future, the department advocated for anti-displacement and affordable housing legislation.

Powell noted that water infrastructure connects to many other issues: “It’s become necessary to make sure we are part of the solutions that protect the fabric of our communities.” Infrastructure improvements should take equity into account; project managers should consider consequences and make sure communities thrive on equal footing. When making improvements to Proctor Creek, a watershed within Atlanta that’s also home to disenfranchised residents of the city, the department made sure to meet the community’s needs by seeking resident input and providing local jobs.

The Department of Watershed Management partners with local organizations to match community members with job vacancies. The department collaborates with Atlanta Technical College, nonprofit services for the homeless, and youth employment programs to train workers. The department has also established a unique partnership with the Department of Corrections, which trains pre-release individuals for jobs. This has the dual benefit of filling vacancies and reducing the recidivism rate.

Overall, Powell’s work establishes a vision of its watershed not as an isolated entity, but an integral part of the community and people’s lives.

Collaborative progress

The conference was also an opportunity to celebrate the collaborative’s progress and goals. Jersey Water Works released its new “Our Water Transformed” report, which outlines new priorities for transforming the state’s water infrastructure and launches the collaborative on the next phase of its work.

Jersey Water Works steering committee

Jersey Water Works steering committee

 Several Jersey Water Works members announced new commitments for 2018. Additionally, in partnership with the Association of Environmental Authorities of New Jersey and the New Jersey section of the American Water Works Association, Jersey Water Works presented the inaugural One Water Awards. These awards recognize projects that exemplify One Water principles: the belief that all water has value and should be handled with sustainable, inclusive, and integrated water resource management practices. The four winners this year are City of Hoboken’s Southwest Park, Landis Sewerage Authority, Middlesex Water Company, and the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association.

Takeaways for the governor

Diana Lind, managing director of the Fels Policy Research Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the authors of the newly released report, said that although this work is not fast, cheap, or easy, it “exists in the realm of the possible.” Andrew Hendry, president and chief executive officer of New Jersey Utilities Association, urged the new governor to show leadership on the benefits of water infrastructure for the economy—and to invest now instead of burdening our descendants with greater costs and crises down the road. Most importantly, as Nathaly Agosto Filion said, “We can show what’s possible by working together.”

Photos from the conference

Keith Muccilli Photography, LLC
Keith Muccilli Photography, LLC
Keith Muccilli Photography, LLC
Keith Muccilli Photography, LLC
Keith Muccilli Photography, LLC
Keith Muccilli Photography, LLC
Keith Muccilli Photography, LLC
Keith Muccilli Photography, LLC
Keith Muccilli Photography, LLC
Keith Muccilli Photography, LLC
Keith Muccilli Photography, LLC
Keith Muccilli Photography, LLC
Keith Muccilli Photography, LLC

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