We understand the stress New Jersey is currently under, bearing a heavy burden of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past month, we have seen the state emerge as a leader in the country and in the world in fighting the spread of COVID-19. Building on your actions to date, we urge you to embrace a similarly strong approach in ensuring that all New Jerseyans have access to clean water during this critical time. We offer below a set of specific recommendations on which you and your administration can act now.
The COVID-19 outbreak is having a tremendous impact on individuals, communities and businesses throughout the state of New Jersey. However, not all New Jerseyans are affected in the same way. Individuals whose water is shut off are unable to follow public health guidelines, like hand washing, to keep themselves safe and prevent the spread of the virus. And everyone needs running water to meet basic needs for drinking, cooking, sanitation, and hygiene when sheltering at home. Low-income customers and individuals out of work are at the greatest risk of being unable to afford to pay their water bills — and, therefore, at greatest risk of shutoff.
Additionally, due to the substantial economic impact of COVID-19, many utilities anticipate significant decline in the operating revenue they need to keep water flowing through the tap to all of their customers. Precipitous drops in non-residential demand due to business closures, and decreased collections from residential customers due to financial distress, will make this result inevitable for many utilities.
In the face of this crisis, the Jersey Water Works Asset Management and Finance Committee makes the following recommendations to the Murphy Administration for immediate action, to help address the inequitable public health, safety, economic, and social impacts of COVID-19 throughout the state during and immediately following the outbreak. The Committee is also developing recommendations for medium-term action that both the Administration and Legislature can take to address underlying water affordability challenges, which predated COVID-19 and will remain (likely more severely) after the immediate public health emergency ends.
I. Relief program for low-income customers
The state has secured voluntary commitments to suspend the use of shutoffs from the vast majority of water utilities, though it is unclear whether 100% of New Jersey’s nearly 600 utilities are included and whether the utilities’ commitments include reconnection of people previously disconnected. (See Appendix at the end of this document.) The state also has not addressed how it will ensure that anyone awaiting reconnection has access to bottled water to meet their immediate needs.
Further, relief for low-income customers requires ensuring that they are not again at the brink of shutoff for non-payment after the public health emergency ends, when the economic fallout continues. Many will face accumulated arrears, and many will remain unable to pay future bills until they regain their financial footing. Therefore, relief to customers must extend beyond shutoff moratoria during the health emergency and reconnection of people previously disconnected; it must also provide relief from the lasting economic impacts of COVID-19 that threaten their access to water.
In light of these concerns, we recommend that the state take the following actions, as soon as possible, invoking the Governor’s emergency powers via executive order or using other relevant legal authorities:
II. Relief program for water and wastewater utilities
The following recommendations address the potential revenue implications of COVID-19 for the water and wastewater utility sector.
Thank you for your consideration of these recommendations. For more information or to discuss them further, please contact Jersey Water Works backbone staff person Lauren Belsky at NJ Future (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Larry Levine, Asset Management & Finance Committee Co-Chair (email@example.com).
Jersey Water Works is a collaborative effort of many diverse organizations and individuals who embrace the common purpose of transforming New Jersey’s inadequate water infrastructure by investing in sustainable, cost-effective solutions that provide communities with clean water and waterways; healthier, safer neighborhoods; local jobs; flood and climate resilience; and economic growth. The Jersey Water Works Asset Management and Finance Committee advances policies and practices to ensure that communities maintain and improve drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure systems to deliver quality water services that meet community needs; and that utility operating budgets and capital investment are adequate and affordable, resulting in systems that operate efficiently and in a state of good repair.
APPENDIX: Previous New Jersey state action and utility commitments regarding water shutoffs and reconnections during the COVID-19 crisis
On March 20, DEP, DCA, and BPU jointly requested that “every water system private or public, including those operated by our municipal governments, commit to a suspension of any water shutoffs for reasons of non-payment, safe reconnection of anyone previously shutoff, and a suspension of the use of liens as a collection practice until the outbreak of COVD-19 has subsided.”1
On March 31, 2020, Governor Murphy and NJDEP Commissioner McCabe announced that 100% of “municipal water companies” have committed to “voluntarily halting all service shutoffs throughout this emergency.”2 However, this announcement did not refer to any commitment to reconnections or to suspending the use of liens. The statement also referred only to “municipal water companies” – not to privately-owned ones.3
Earlier news reports stated that New Jersey American Water, SUEZ, Aqua New Jersey, and Middlesex Water, the state’s four largest privately-owned water utilities, had adopted voluntary shutoff moratoria and were working to reconnect people previously disconnected.4 However, there are approximately ten other BPU-regulated privately owned water utilities in New Jersey, which collectively serve (as of 2015) approximately 25,000 customers.5