Community member, Monica Shaw, pictured with NJDEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette.
For a group of stakeholders from New Jersey and neighboring states, coming together is an essential part of finding solutions around water infrastructure and stormwater management. The Jersey Water Works (JWW) conference offers an opportunity for such connections to happen in person. This year marked eight years of JWW conferences and the first in-person conference since 2019.
Participants, speakers, and members convened at The War Memorial in Trenton, NJ. About 200 participants gathered to learn from the water sector’s leaders, experts, and advocates on how to increase visibility and awareness of our state’s water challenges and solutions. The event highlighted opportunities to build upon water infrastructure funding and bolster our water workforce, as well as subjects like climate resilience, lead service line replacement, and community engagement and outreach.
The conference consisted of continental breakfast, lunch, and the following remarks and sessions:
In years past, the Jersey Water Works collaborative was largely focused on articulating the key problems in the water sector. The conference conversation has evolved, and under the guidance of new and familiar speakers, members are moving into action. For example, utilities are trying to determine how to adhere to the 10-year guidelines to replace all lead service lines. In addition, there is significant funding available to address the problems articulated in the past, and JWW members are determined to ensure all utilities can tap into that funding. New programs like the Funding Navigator, a project from New Jersey Future and its national partner Environmental Policy Innovation Center, were introduced to help overburdened utilities connect with funding opportunities. Climate resilience was also a focus, as utilities determine how to handle changing weather patterns and what upgrades are needed to ensure safe, reliable water and wastewater management.
In the virtual evening session, it was explained that in New Jersey, there is more than $17 million available in the state’s Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP). Less than $2 million in LIHWAP funding has been allocated to date, and this funding must be used by September 2023. It is important that JWW and its members spread the word about the valuable, but currently temporary, program for LIHWAP funding. Further, utilities not yet enrolled in the program should consider signing up. Enrollment will allow their ratepayers at risk of water shutoff or with unpaid bills to apply for the program. Funding of up to $2,500 is available for qualified individuals whose utilities are enrolled in the program. Email LIHWAP@dca.nj.gov with any questions. Utilities that have not yet enrolled in the program should consider signing up. Enrollment will allow their ratepayers at risk of water shutoff or with unpaid bills to apply for the program.
Opportunities exist and must be accessed to advance and build our water leadership pipeline. According to the keynote speaker, Valoria Armstrong, “there are 982,723 people employed in the utility industry in the U.S. as of 2022. The number of people employed in the utility industry in the U.S. increased by 1.9% on average over the five years between 2017 and 2022. 16.9% of all U.S. utility workers are women, while 83.1% are men. The average age of an employed utility worker is 47 years old. 50% of the U.S. utility workforce is expected to retire over the next decade.” (Source). Armstrong argued that the solution is simple: if you recruit (and create strong workforce development pipelines), invest in talent and develop people, and create an inclusive culture, you are most likely to recruit and train talented individuals.
Among the topics covered by speakers at the conference was the water workforce, which includes apprenticeships, professional development, and college career pathways. Brian Valentino stressed the importance of developing our workforce for the future, not only for today but for the future. “If you’re developing the workforce for today, it’s too late. You have to be thinking of what it’s going to look like five, 10, 20 years from now. Part of my job as the executive of my agency is to be certain that those managers who are moving up that line behind me are prepared to take over my organization and make it even better.”
The breakout sessions allowed attendees the opportunity to connect in smaller groups to hear from experts on a variety of water-related subjects, including communicating about water issues, replacing lead service lines, and building water infrastructure. One of the breakout sessions focused on strategies to increase visibility, community engagement, and outreach efforts to ensure people can access JWW toolkits and information. Storytelling is a key strategy when getting people’s attention to care about the things we talk about related to water issues, equity, and infrastructure. After the conference, one participant reported that, “the breakout session on communication at the end of the day was one of the best sessions I have ever been to. All of the speakers were outstanding.” The breakout sessions allowed participants to learn, engage, and develop their skills to better advocate for water in New Jersey.
Water is the one resource needed for life, managed by infrastructure, and ingested by people. We all want to trust our water and know it is safe to consume. To learn more about the conference speakers, sponsors, and updated information on members’ 2023 commitments and 2022 accomplishments, check out the program book and related materials (including presentation slides). To join the collaborative, or for more information about how to get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Together, we can help build infrastructure for healthy, safe, clean water for all New Jerseyans.