Ten Great Ideas for New Jersey’s Water Infrastructure
#Community Engagement and Partnerships
Chris Sturm, Managing Director, Policy and Water, New Jersey Future
New Jersey Delegation Gathers National Best Practices from One Water Summit
Innovative ways to integrate water management, reduce costs, partner and build broad public support were all on tap at the U.S. Water Alliance’s second annual One Water Summit, on June 8-10 in Atlanta. Through coordination by Jersey Water Works, the cross-sector collaborative focused on upgrading New Jersey’s aging and inadequate water infrastructure, 13 representatives from New Jersey explored these new opportunities as the New Jersey delegation. They joined 15 other state and regional delegations and overall, 450 water practitioners from across the country.
The New Jersey delegates were particularly inspired by the following successful approaches, which they collectively offer for consideration in the Garden State:
Emory University’s WaterHub reclamation and reuse facility. This campus-scale system won a U.S. Water Alliance U.S. Water Prize as the first system of its kind to be installed in the United States. The project utilizes eco-engineering processes to clean waste water for future non-potable uses. It is capable of recycling up to 400,000 gallons per day – nearly 40 percent of Emory’s total campus water needs, reducing use of Atlanta’s municipal water supply by up to 146 million gallons annually. The system creates a more resilient campus, mitigates risk by generating an alternative water supply for critical heating and cooling operations, and provides significant cost savings. WaterHub was constructed at no capital expense to the university since water savings are used to defray the construction cost of the facility.
San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s contracts with community-based organizations to deliver projects. The commission contracts with community organizations that hire community members to do the recruiting, training, management and payroll for various projects, especially green-infrastructure projects – a strategy that provides jobs, training and a sense of community ownership in the neighborhood improvements.
The City of Syracuse’s social-media hashtag #FixOurPipes, which it uses to underscore the negative impacts any time a piece of water infrastructure fails. The hashtag has now spread beyond Syracuse, and serves to make visible on an ongoing basis the critical role water infrastructure plays in community health, safety and commerce.
Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s strategic communications plan. Utility speakers at the Communications Bootcamp session described their approach to community engagement and public relations using a strategic communications plan so that all interested parties – customers, media, elected officials, educators and students – understand clearly how investments in water infrastructure will benefit the community and why they are important. The goal is well-informed consumers who feel a sense of personal responsibility for the quality of their water and water infrastructure. As representatives from NEORSD pointed out in detail, the increasing challenges associated with rate changes, failing infrastructure and an image problem necessitate effective communications that build support for project investments.
Georgia Department of Community Affairs’ WaterFirst recognition program. Delegations shared how they advance the best and most innovative ideas for bringing their water infrastructure into the 21st century, including Georgia’s WaterFirst program, which offers planning and assessment assistance, learning opportunities to improve water stewardship, and finally, designation as a WaterFirst community, an award of excellence.
Peer-to-peer exchanges. New Orleans has convened an Urban Waters Series, at which they asked speakers from other cities to share their experiences, and then representatives from New Orleans visited Milwaukee, Austin, and Philadelphia. Representatives from Atlanta have visited Philadelphia as part of a similar exchange. Jersey Water Works members are already contemplating a plan to bring representatives from several jurisdictions to Philadelphia, where Philadelphia Water and the Trust for Public Land could share examples of what is working with green infrastructure partnerships and showcase on-the-ground examples highlighting what works.
Low-income customer assistance programs. One of the biggest obstacles facing utilities seeking rate increases is addressing low-income residents who cannot afford to pay more than their current rates. Speakers from Detroit, Northeast Ohio and the NAACP described approaches that allow utilities to raise new revenues from rate increases while helping low-income customers pay for water.
Diversified institutions that get everyone involved. Citizen advisory boards and citizen representation on utility boards were among the tactics highlighted to engage the community in water infrastructure planning and decision-making.
Atlanta’s circulation of drinking water quality reports. Several delegates were impressed with how proactively other jurisdictions shared required documents such as drinking water quality reports and waterbody quality reports. (In New Jersey drinking water quality reports must be made available, but typically little effort is made to publicize them.) In addition to proactive information distribution, some utilities have a well-established education program, so that their customers understand the information in the reports, know why it’s important, and know what action if any they should take (including with local and state elected leaders).
Philadelphia’s Stormwater Management Incentives Program, which provides grants to help defray the cost for commercial customers and contractors who want to design and install stormwater best management practices. The grants go directly to non-residential property owners who construct stormwater retrofit projects, which reduce stormwater pollution to the city’s sewer and surrounding waterways and enhance water quality.
In addition to learning about state-of-the-art water infrastructure solutions from other jurisdictions, three New Jersey delegates – Drew Curtis of the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark; Michele Putnam from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection; and Margaret Waldock of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation – shared their work during panel sessions at which they were speakers.
Delegates also explored partnerships with each other for projects back at home. This kind of collaboration happened naturally because of the broad cross-section of invested stakeholders represented: NJDEP regulators, a city water and sewer utility, community development organizations, environmental organizations, foundations and Jersey Water Works’ backbone staff. One great idea for next year? Start recruiting delegates earlier, in order to include more people!