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Critical Connections for Critical Conversations: First In-Person Jersey Water Works Membership Meeting Since 2019 a Huge Success

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07/18/22
Hannah Reynolds, Communications Specialist

“The $300 million [allocated by the state for water infrastructure] is just a drop in the bucket, but we’ll make good use of that drop,” said Shawn LaTourette, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), in his mini-keynote address at July’s Jersey Water Works (JWW) membership meeting. “It shows that advocacy works.”

On July 13, 2022, over one hundred water advocates and members of the JWW collaborative attended the collaborative’s first in-person annual meeting since 2019. Members celebrated a historic win, as Governor Murphy and the legislature allocated $300 million in funding from the federal American Rescue Plan to water infrastructure in the FY23 state budget. The meeting included lunch, three mini-keynotes, group discussions, and four breakout sessions, as well as networking throughout.

I was glad to walk into the room and see so many people ready to dig into issues about New Jersey’s water infrastructure. There is so much more work to be done and we need JWW members to continue to collaborate,” said JWW Program Manager Paula Figueroa-Vega, when asked for her perspective on the meeting. 

“We need clean water for everyone, regardless of income,” said JWW co-chair Nicole Miller as she presented on behalf of herself and fellow co-chair, Andy Kricun. Miller recounted  the significant accomplishments of the Jersey Water Works collaborative over the past year, including the establishment of the new Climate Resilience Workgroup and the Water Workforce Task Force, as well as the creation of four factsheets designed to help different stakeholder groups (including environmental experts, transportation specialists, school advocates, and community members) advocate for the implementation of green infrastructure in their communities.

Over lunch, three mini-keynote addresses were presented by eminent water leaders in the state: David Zimmer of Infrastructure Bank (I-Bank), Kareem Adeem of the City of Newark, and Shawn LaTourette of the NJDEP. First, Zimmer presented state-financing opportunities for loans with minimal or no interest rates, supporting the development of reliable, sustainable water infrastructure in qualifying municipalities and counties. Zimmer suggested that JWW members could play a role in outreach for disadvantaged communities and small, rural water systems, as the I-Bank seeks to expand its reach across the state.

“No one wants to talk about the real costs of water,” said Kareem Adeem, director of the Department of Water and Sewer Utilities in the City of Newark, during his mini-keynote address. Adeem continued to explain that the huge problem of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and flooding resulting from stormwater mismanagement necessitates community action to hold local and state governments accountable. “We need to demand what we want, not ask,” implored Adeem. “We can’t let the accolades [of new state funding] silence you.”

NJDEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette closed out the lunch keynotes, holding a Q&A session at the end of his remarks. The audience asked questions on topics including: updates on the upcoming CSO permits, plans to regulate the perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in NJ drinking water, and whether the NJDEP would consider a fossil fuel moratorium in light of climate change. This session offered ample opportunity for audience engagement with the commissioner preceding the group discussions and breakout sessions, highlighting some of the priority areas for the collaborative.

Following the keynote speakers and lunch, JWW members convened in groups to respond to the following question: “From your perspective and your work, what are one or two critical issues around water infrastructure that are most important to be addressed in the coming year?” The ensuing conversations were lively and engaging, with topics of CSOs, flooding, and stormwater management; education and transparency; climate change; lead and PFAS contamination; and the water workforce emerging as common concerns for JWW members. 

To conclude the annual membership meeting, participants split into four breakout sessions aligned with various JWW committees: 

  • Financing Utility Projects (with Affordability as a Consideration), hosted by the Asset Management and Finance Committee
  • Launching Local Green Infrastructure Advocacy, hosted by the Green Infrastructure Committee
  • Smart Combined Sewer Overflow Control Plans, hosted by the Combined Sewer Overflow Committee
  • Visualizing Climate Resilience in Water Utilities, hosted by the Climate Resilience Committee

The four sessions offered a productive opportunity for members to become more involved in JWW’s efforts and to learn about the programs underway within the various committees. Overall, the meeting was a welcome return to in-person collaboration and conversation, and lived up to its theme – offering critical connections for critical conversations. As JWW Program Manager Paula Figueroa-Vega aptly summed it up, “When we come together as one community of water advocates, we can work together collaboratively to address water issues facing our communities and ensure a healthy future for all state residents.”

 

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.

Jersey Water Works welcomes all interested individuals and organizations that commit to supporting and advancing the shared purpose and goals. Members are invited to join any of the collaborative’s four committees. To become a member and join one or more of the committees, please sign up here.

 

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