A new governor takes the helm in New Jersey next week, and the state is looking ahead to a fresh start on environmental protection. High on the list is clean water. It’s a basic necessity of life. And it’s an issue consistently identified as a top environmental concern—indeed a top concern of any kind—by voters in New Jersey and nationwide.
All New Jerseyans deserve affordable access to clean, safe water and sewer service that protects their health and our environment. To ensure they get it, the state must bring its aging water infrastructure into the 21st Century. As described in a recent report by the Jersey Water Works collaborative (where I represent NRDC on the steering committee), this is an investment the state can’t afford not to make.
With an eye toward the incoming governor, NRDC has joined with leaders in many fields—from New Jersey’s utility, environmental, community development, municipal, smart growth, industry, engineering, resilience, and planning sectors—to call on Governor-elect Murphy to embrace and ambitious clean water agenda for his first year.
That shared agenda emphasizes:
This week, the Legislature laid down its own markers. A bi-partisan legislative Task Force issued its recommendations, and they track very closely the agenda advanced by NRDC and our partners.
There’s a lot to unpack in the Task Force report (which has not yet been published in full online, but was circulated informally last week). Below is my summary of the report’s key recommendations on the issues listed above.
NRDC will continue partnering with New Jersey-based groups to advance these initiatives in Trenton this year.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates—and almost certainly under-estimates—that New Jersey will require an investment of over $40 billion over the next 20 years to meet its drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure needs. Solutions will have to include federal, state, and local funding sources.
For the state’s part, the Task Force recommended:
Last year, the state adopted legislation, known as the Water Quality Accountability Act, that requires drinking water utilities to develop and implement “asset management” programs. Far too often, systems simply react to costly infrastructure failures, rather than planning and acting pro-actively to keep systems in good shape and capable of meeting clean water standards. Effective asset management puts utilities in the pro-active mode, which saves money and enables the reliable provision of clean water.
The Take Force report calls for:
The Task Force cited NRDC’s estimate that, every day, 130 million gallons of treated drinking water leaks from New Jersey’s water systems. But most water systems have no idea how much water they’re actually losing. Figuring that out is an essential first step for utilities to get their water losses under control—and it’s an essential part of an effective asset management program.
The Task Force endorsed a set of proposals that comes directly from NRDC’s model legislation, which in turn is based on best practices from other leading states. Most of these provisions are included in legislation introduced in New Jersey last session, which NRDC strongly supported.
Specifically, the report calls for legislation:
As communities in New Jersey inevitably raise their water and sewer rates to fund the local share of essential infrastructure investments, the state must ensure that water and sewer service remain affordable for all. These investments are vital to the health of communities, but it is just as vital to ensure that funding mechanisms are fair and equitable.
Already, over the last 15 years, increasing capital investment needs (and decreasing federal financial assistance) have caused water and wastewater rates to rise nationally at about twice the rate of both inflation and income growth. Bill are increasingly expensive—as a share of household income—for many low-, moderate-, and fixed-income households in New Jersey.
To address this, the Task Force recommends:
Further, many of the report’s recommendations—such as improving asset management and limiting diversion of utility revenues to general municipal budgets—will help control costs for all water and sewer ratepayers.
The lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, was a major motivation for the Task Force’s creation. With attention focused on lead in drinking water all around the country, it’s clear that serious lead problems are not limited to Flint. They’re very real in New Jersey too. The report notes that an estimated 350,000 homes and businesses in New Jersey are served by lead service lines, and that lead is “pervasive” in the drinking water of schools across the State.
The Task Force recommended:
The report doesn’t offer specific changes to the lead and copper rules. But NRDC’s own recommendations include: requiring comprehensive system-wide inventories of lead service lines, which the Task Force proposed to accomplish by legislation; requiring full replacement of lead service lines and prohibiting partial replacements; requiring clear, ongoing, and culturally appropriate public education and notification of lead problems; reducing the “Lead Action Level” to 5 to 10 parts per billion; and strengthening corrosion control requirements. Until a complete revamp of the rules is completed, DEP needs to establish strong water quality parameters, which are essential for optimizing corrosion control, and make sure that all systems comply with existing sampling protocols.
Stormwater runoff is the most pervasive source of water pollution in New Jersey. In older cities, it causes billions of gallons of raw sewage overflows. And in cities both old and new, it carries away animal waste, fertilizer, trash, pesticides, and sediment—directly into streams, rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. That same runoff causes local flooding when drainage systems simply can’t handle the water flowing off of the pavement, rooftops, and other hard surfaces that blanket so much of the state.
To help address these problems, the Task Force recommended: