COMMENTARY: NJ must avoid Flint-like crisis

The ongoing media coverage of the water fiasco in Flint, Michigan, and the unconscionable conduct of leaders responsible for the disaster have underscored the importance of having access to clean, safe and plentiful water.

But these problems aren’t confined only to Flint, where residents unknowingly drank water contaminated with lead for months. There was also the issue of lead-leached water in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore and in 2008 gallons of toxic coal ash containing lead flowed into the Tennessee River causing enormous hardships for the people of that area.

Clean, safe water and the infrastructure that delivers and protects it are a major problem throughout the United States.

Janet Kavinoky, executive director of transportation and infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said it bluntly in a recent report: “People think that water should be free. My response is that if you’re in Washington, D.C., you can go down to the Potomac with your bucket, carry the water home, treat it and when you’re done, figure out a way to dispose of it. It’s hard to convince people that these things cost money, which is why it’s hard to get investment in infrastructure.”

The backbone of our nation’s water system was a highly successful initial installation of the infrastructure necessary to deliver it. Municipalities spent time, effort and money to create a system that was the envy of most countries. But that was a long time ago.

A recent summary, “Ripple Effects,” based on a Rutgers study, provided four case studies of cities with combined water and sewer systems that had major water-related problems. They are emblematic of the entire state. One of the more startling findings is that much of the piping system of these cities — Hoboken, Jersey City, Paterson and Camden — dates back a hundred years. In Hoboken, some pipes date back to the Civil War.

Since then, municipalities have spent money on operations and maintenance, but it’s the repair and replacement — an expensive process — that we’ve ignored. This could run into the billions of dollars and take decades to complete, but failure to take proactive steps could lead to a disastrous, Flint-like scenario in New Jersey.

If we don’t deal with the issue now, there are potentially severe economic consequences that will impact a city’s ability to attract businesses and retain residents.

I’m optimistic, however, that there is an answer and it is unfolding before us.

This past December, regulatory officials, scientists, governmental advocates and representatives of New Jersey municipalities and corporations gathered at the New Jersey Institute of Technology to address current and future water-related issues. This coalition, dubbed Jersey Water Works, intends to “focus on transforming New Jersey’s inadequate urban 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.”

Because I’m an optimist, I believe we have the leadership, political will and scientific expertise to fix a combined sewer system problem that allows for the dumping of more than seven billion gallons of raw sewage into our waterways annually.

I think we are just beginning to turn the corner on this issue as municipalities and citizens become acutely aware of the dire consequences of any further delay. Flint is not an anomaly but a dangerous harbinger of what’s to come if we don’t seize this moment and make the proper investments in our water infrastructure.

But to accomplish this it will take more than just government alone. It will require a populist groundswell from each and every one of us to make this happen.


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