“If it looks like water, it’s water.”
Former New Jersey Gov. and U.S. EPA Administrator Christie Whitman started the Jersey Water Works’ inaugural membership meeting July 25 by highlighting the scope of the problem we face. “We can’t make any more water,” she said, and our infrastructure systems are old, leaking, unsafe and, in New Jersey, particularly susceptible to the threat of climate change. No one entity can fix it alone, she continued, so it’s going to have to be “all of us.” Results will only come via the kind of collaboration at all levels that Jersey Water Works is fostering.
But she asked, how do you make people understand the realities of a system they can’t see? She urged members to make sure those affected understand the problems. Find the biggest users of the system and engage them. Talk to elected officials, who she says do understand the problem. And most important, she encouraged the 90 members of the collaborative in attendance, start at the bottom and work up. “The higher up you go, the more determinations are made around politics, not policy. What spurs action is that people are demanding it.”
“If it looks like water, it’s water” was one of the big points made by Howard Neukrug, the former commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Company, who used the statement to emphasize the importance of approaching water management from the perspective of what has come to be known as One Water – i.e., all water, whether it’s drinking water, wastewater, stormwater or floodwater, should be viewed as a scarce resource and an opportunity, rather than a problem to be mitigated.
This means breaking down silos, he said, and finding new ways to collaborate to make the most of our investments in water and water infrastructure. We have under-invested for so long, he said, that now we will need to spend “a lot – two, three times as much in 10 years as we do today.” He acknowledged that finding sources for that funding has become increasingly difficult. As little as 3 percent comes from federal and state governments, he said, with utilities left to pick up the rest of the tab. Those utilities, and the communities they serve, are struggling under that pressure. “I have no idea how” they will find the money, he continued, “but we have no choice. We’ve deferred so much that now what we’re doing is called ‘super-maintenance.’ We can’t keep putting out fires.” By not replacing infrastructure at the rate we need to, he concluded, we risk more and more serious breakdowns on the level of the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Water is a central feature and focus of all of our important urban areas, he said, emphasizing all the ways in which thriving, healthy urban centers need water – for recreation, for commerce, for nature and for daily life. We need to adapt and expand our current water policies, he said, which are aimed at protecting health and the environment, so that water investments also foster the growth and sustainability of what he called “great water cities.”
He cautioned that this will require deep structural change in policies and methods for managing water. This kind of change is hard, he said, and projects often need to be done collaboratively, at the ground level, if we are going to achieve what he called “the new order of things” that we need.
Focusing on the Work
With these insights as their cue, Jersey Water Works members spent an hour of the meeting in workshops aligned with the collaborative’s committees, reviewing projects currently under way and brainstorming ways to make greater progress on the collaborative’s goals. Jane Kenny, Jersey Water Works’ co-chair, noted that the collaborative is growing, with almost 220 supporting members, of whom 130, or more than half, serve on at least one committee. She challenged attendees to build on this success and expand the effort’s reach by recruiting new members from their networks.
Members left the meeting upbeat and enthusiastic about the opportunities the collaborative has to make a real difference in the way New Jersey’s cities and towns manage their water and water infrastructure. Gov. Whitman encouraged them in her remarks, saying that while the work can seem daunting and the timeline long, “look at the difference” the collaborative has made already. “You are all influencers, with the ability to motivate,” she concluded. “Congratulations and don’t give up!”