Infrastructure Week 2018 is upon us, and across New Jersey and the country organizations large and small are bringing attention to the need for infrastructure investment. The health and reliability of our infrastructure is critical to all aspects of our daily lives: from keeping the lights on, to delivering drinking water to our homes, and even having a reliable cell phone network. Our economy depends on it. Our quality of life depends on it. It is not hyperbole to say that our nation’s future depends on it.

Some of our infrastructure is old. Outdated. Failing. Here in New Jersey we have pipes that deliver water into our homes that have been in the ground since the Civil War. And those pipes leak: an estimated 130 million gallons of treated water every day.

Every. Day.

We know that investing resources to upgrade and modernize all of our infrastructure, including our water infrastructure, is important. But there are some parts of our infrastructure that present especially daunting challenges. A relic of a different time, combined-sewer systems are still in operation in 21 urban communities in New Jersey.

What’s a combined sewer system? It is a system where both wastewater (from sinks, toilets, showers, etc.) and stormwater (think rain going into storm drains in the curb) enter the same pipe. By itself that doesn’t sound too bad, but these systems were designed so that in the event of a heavy rainfall, when the sewage treatment plant gets overwhelmed by the additional volume, diluted sewage overflows into our rivers and streams. And sometimes the pipes back up, resulting in flooding in the streets and basements of the communities served by these systems.

So when it rains it floods, and that flood water may contain raw sewage. The puddles the kids are stomping in? The water in your laundry room? The water you got splashed with from the car driving by? If you are in a community with a combined sewer system, it’s possible that’s not just water.

There is a government requirement to fix this. Each of these municipalities must adopt, or be covered by, a plan to reduce or eliminate combined sewer overflows (CSOs) from these systems by 2020. Called Long Term Control Plans, these documents will be detailed road maps for upgrading the sewer and stormwater infrastructure to ensure that combined-sewer systems stop discharging raw sewage into our rivers and flooding our cities. The plans will specify the kinds of infrastructure improvements that will be made over the next couple of decades, that residents and businesses will pay for. They can include a balance of traditional “gray infrastructure” like new underground pipe systems and “green infrastructure” like street trees, green roofs and planted strips that capture rainwater where it falls, before it goes down the storm drain.

Who decides how and what to upgrade? While much of the focus on these plans deals with the technical aspects of engineering better systems, there is also a requirement for public participation in the development of the plans. This raises a question: Who should make the decisions?

This question is a universal one that we should be asking during Infrastructure Week: How do we design infrastructure to make sure that it is meeting the needs of the entire community, not just the bare minimum of making sure that the utilities function? Our CSO communities have a basic health and safety need to not have their rivers and streets inundated by fouled water. More than that though, they might want the investments to include parks that both manage stormwater and provide a place to play. Or they may want more public outreach on the tradeoffs between different approaches in terms of costs and community benefits. Or they might want a say in where infrastructure is built or what neighborhoods and commercial districts get upgraded first. Not only will the investments be made in their communities, but residents and small businesses will be paying for these improvements for decades,and the infrastructure upgrades should meet their needs. Engaging stakeholders in infrastructure decisions is not a “pie in the sky” goal; it is actionable and achievable. As we talk about how and when we improve our infrastructure, let’s make sure that we are looking at how the whole community is affected.

Happy Infrastructure Week 2018!

Moriah Kinberg is community outreach coordinator for New Jersey Future, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes policies for sustainable growth and development in New Jersey.

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