We can no longer ignore this crisis. It is time we develop a comprehensive strategy for improving our water and sewer infrastructure to ensure we deliver clean water to the men, women, children and businesses of our state.
New Jersey has miles and miles of old, deteriorating water and sewer infrastructure lines. It is not hyperbolic to say that more situations like those in Newark and Camden will occur if we don't act now.
We have already seen the impact of ignoring this crisis.
In Newark, water sampling tests indicated that in the state's largest school district, 30 out of 67 schools had lead concentration above 15 parts per billion. That is the level at which the Federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends corrective action be taken. As a result, faucets and drinking fountains in these schools were shut off and bottled water had to be brought in. These elevated levels of lead are being tied to Newark schools' aging infrastructure.
In Camden, there are schools whose water fountains have been shut down for years. Students and staff instead must use bottled water machines. It costs the school district $75,000 a year just to provide bottled water and cups.
But this isn't just an urban problem.
Water samples from suburban municipalities across the state have detected unacceptable levels of lead due to the lead solder and lead lined service lines. In 2014, the state Department of Health found that hundreds of water systems throughout the state had traces of arsenic or nitrate in the water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes Salem, Cumberland, Essex, and Mercer Counties had the highest numbers of children impacted by lead poisoning.
Lead in drinking water is no benign matter. According to the World Health Organization, "Young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system."
The health issues related to aging infrastructure are not limited to lead. Our sewer systems are so old and outdated that in many areas across the state, even a light rainfall can result in raw sewage washing into waterways like the Passaic River and Raritan Bay.
When aging infrastructure is not poisoning our drinking water, it is creating havoc and waste. In Hoboken, a water line broke and the resulting sinkhole devoured an entire car. Numerous New Jersey municipalities have water mains – which deliver treated drinking water — leaking so badly that up to 60 percent of the treated water never reaches customers. I'll repeat that: In some systems, up to 60 percent of the treated drinking water is lost. Think of the wasted money and resources occurring every day due to our failure to address this problem.
A March Rutgers-Eagleton poll indicates that 52 percent of New Jerseyans are concerned about the water they drink. It also shows that a majority of residents believe that water pollution is a serious problem. This crisis can no longer be ignored simply because we can't see it crumbling before our eyes. The time to act is now.
I am proud to chair the Clean Water Construction Coalition, which helps focus national attention on the need for federal legislation to improve water and wastewater infrastructure. One of our organization's highest priorities has been fully funding Army Corps of Engineers programs and the reauthorization of the Federal Clean Water and Federal Safe Drinking Water Acts. It has been nearly 30 years since the Clean Water Act was last reauthorized.
Our federal representatives in New Jersey have been loudly advocating for the increased federal funding and protections that the Clean Water Construction Coalition has called for. What we need now is for Congress to come together and realize the gravity of the situation — the clock is ticking.
As someone who has fought for these kinds of improvements at the federal level for over a decade, I know this will not be easy. But nothing short of the public health and safety of all New Jerseyans is at risk.