How many times have you noticed a sewer catch basin along a street that always backs up in rainstorms? Have you noticed the trash blocking the amount of water that can escape the basin? Have you noticed an oily sheen in the water that flows down the street? This is New Jersey’s current system of stormwater management — a system that is not doing its job.
In New Jersey, like many other places in our country, stormwater pollution now accounts for 60 percent of the pollution that enters our waters. Stormwater collects fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and asbestos from brakes, antifreeze, sediment and many other pollutants as it runs off our lawns, driveways, parking lots and streets. This cocktail of pollutants has contributed to the fact that most of our waters are too polluted to meet required standards.
In most communities, there is a system of pipes, catch basins, infiltration basins, and other infrastructure for our streets, homes, businesses, and roads that collects and discharges stormwater. These systems are called municipal separate storm sewers (MS4s). These are separate and shouldn’t be confused with a system of pipes that collect sewage from our homes and businesses for treatment.
In other older communities they operate “combined sewer systems.” (CSS). Just as the name implies, these systems of pipes combine stormwater runoff with the sewage from our homes, and can be found in 21 of New Jersey’s urban areas. Everything that we wash in our sinks and showers or flush down our toilets mingles with the stormwater from our streets and yards. On good days, these flows travel through this network of pipes to a sewage treatment plant. But on days with heavy rains, these the pipes are not big enough to accommodate all of the rain and sewage, resulting in an overflow of untreated sewage into our waterways and streets. When this happens, our families, children and businesses are forced to walk through raw sewage to get to work, school, and other destinations. They may also be fishing or swimming in untreated sewage if they use their local rivers and lakes.
Any type of infrastructure created to handle stormwater must be maintained, repaired, and, in some instances, replaced. A functioning and reliable stormwater management system is vital for reducing flooding and improving water quality.
According to a New Jersey Future report, the cost estimates to “fix” the combined sewer systems in our 21 communities range between $2 billion and $9.3 billion. That cost does not include the remaining parts of the state’s ignored stormwater infrastructure. Currently, the cost of maintaining all of these systems falls on municipalities, counties, the state. These costs that are borne by all us through our property taxes, but there are more needs than funding. Officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection testified recently at a recent legislative hearing that local officials say the lack of funding impacts their abilities to maintain their systems.
At least 40 states, plus Washington, D.C., have created and operate “stormwater utilities” to address their need to maintain and improve stormwater management. These 1,600 stormwater utilities follow the “polluter pays” model: If you generate pollution, you are responsible for addressing that pollution. Stormwater utilities charge a fee to each property within its service area to be used for maintenance and improvement of stormwater management systems. The ultimate goal of the system is to reduce flooding and improve water quality. Property owners also have an incentive to improve their own stormwater management and reduce their fees by better addressing the stormwater that leaves their property. Property owners can install rain gardens, cisterns to reuse water, green roofs, porous pavement, and other techniques to address the stormwater problem at the source. By doing this, those property owners reduce their contribution to water pollution and flooding problems and, in return, reduces the fees they pay to the utility.
The New Jersey Legislature is looking at stormwater utilities as an effective and efficient way to reduce flooding and improve water quality through better stormwater management. We urge the state to enact stormwater utilities legislation and to work with communities to implement this cost-effective solution. We can all benefit from this investment in our communities.