In New Jersey, where rivers rage on either side and some towns and cities face rainfall flooding when it storms, it’s hard to imagine a day without water. But while the life-giving resource is everywhere, New Jerseyans are not exactly going to the river to wash clothes, or holding a drinking glass out of the window to quench their thirst. We are lucky enough to have our water treated, delivered, and collected by a vast network of underground infrastructure, but are we doing enough to sustain our water systems? We cannot prevent disruptions caused by natural disasters like hurricanes, but our planning efforts and investments should be able to prevent scenarios where one New Jersey city faced 18 water main breaks in just three months or where a homeowner’s basement in Chatham was flooded with raw sewage.
On October 10, the Value of Water Campaign asks Americans to think about our water systems and their role in our lives, not just a day-zero scenario. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave New Jersey’s wastewater and drinking water infrastructure grades of “D” and “C” respectively. It’s estimated that New Jersey will need at least $25 billion over the next 15 years to repair and improve its water and wastewater systems. However, with tight budgets, necessary improvements to this infrastructure often get pushed down the list in favor of other, more visible projects.
When people don’t demand the kind of service from their water utility that they do from the cable or satellite provider, they are doing themselves a disservice. Today we ask you to participate in Imagine A Day Without Water, a day of action hosted by the Value of Water Campaign, because we no longer have the luxury of ignoring our failing infrastructure. Costs will only increase if improvements and maintenance are deferred.
The truth is, you can’t imagine a day without water. Without water, life as we know it on this planet wouldn’t exist. But such a grim outlook misses the point of the Value of Water Campaign’s message of Imagine a Day Without Water. There is water on this planet and we use it every day for a myriad of things without giving it a second thought. Firefighters depend on pressurized, readily available water to save lives, farmers depend on sustainable water resources for their crops, and tourism-based businesses along the Jersey Shore depend on fishable, swimmable waters for revenue.
We depend on this infrastructure, but we need to keep up with maintenance or put ourselves at greater risk for breaks, leaks and bursts that require expensive and disruptive emergency repairs. This is in part why New Jersey passed the Water Quality Accountability Act in 2017, to ensure that the state’s largest purveyors of drinking water have asset management plans, or schedules and records for maintaining the pipes, valves, hydrants, and more that comprise each system. With these plans, we can keep our water services running in optimal condition. However, those systems without a legislative mandate need to make plans as well. With asset management plans, we can have some confidence that we won’t have to Imagine a Day Without Water.
We no longer have the luxury of ignoring our aging and failing infrastructure. While running assets to failure is a form of asset management, it’s not the most cost effective or customer-friendly way to run a system. In some New Jersey cities, pipes still in use date to before the Civil War. Plans need to be made now to invest in the short- and long-term repair, maintenance, and replacement of our existing water supply systems. We deserve safe reliable water and so do future generations of New Jerseyans.
Systems need to make sure they have a sustainable supply of water to treat; ensure that their treatment facilities are resilient in emergency conditions; ensure their processes can remove contaminants from the water supply effectively; minimize leaks and prevent breaks that can cause outages and damage to other infrastructure; and keep up with pipe cleaning so wastewater can be collected properly and treated before being returned to the waterways that others use as a source of supply.
We are glad to participate in the Imagine a Day Without Water campaign and bring more widespread awareness to the issues we face and the importance of our water infrastructure. When New Jerseyans don’t demand the kind of service from their water supply that they do from their cell phone provider, it’s no wonder our infrastructure receives barely passing marks from ASCE. Water is essential. Without water, there’s no food, there’s no drinks.
Help spread the word through your social networks, ask your elected officials to prioritize investment in water and wastewater infrastructure, and help support local water and wastewater funding through your votes and tax dollars.
Brian Carr is chairman of the American Water Works Association – New Jersey Section, which is made up of more than 1,300 members united in a mission to provide safe drinking water to the people of New Jersey. Virginia Michelin is the immediate past president of the American Water Resources Association – New Jersey Section, a multidisciplinary organization focused on advancing water resource research, planning, development and networking statewide. Both authors are members of Jersey Water Works, a collaborative working to transform New Jersey’s inadequate water infrastructure.