Just How Badly Is NJ’s Water Infrastructure Leaking?

New Jersey’s aging infrastructure leaks up to 30 percent of its water before it ever reaches the tap. Yesterday, a legislative task force began exploring ways to fix the problem.

One hurdle that emerged is that many systems do not have a handle on just how much water is being lost, leading the co-chairman of the group to ask an assistant commissioner at the Department of Environmental Protection why water-loss audits are not mandated.

“Why doesn’t the state require it of everyone?’’ asked Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), after hearing that such audits are routine for the Delaware River Basin Commission, the source of drinking water for 15 million people in the region.

“We’ll take it back as something to consider,’’ replied Dan Kennedy, the assistant commissioner in charge of the department’s water programs. “This is a long-term issue the department is getting a handle on.’’

The loss of water from the state’s infrastructure emerged as one of chief topics at the second meeting of the task force, which was appointed earlier this year to look at problems in the state’s drinking-water system.

After the meeting, McKeon questioned how the state expects to address those issues without determining where and how much water loss is occurring at the hundreds of systems delivering water to consumers. The systems include a handful of larger purveyors and many small systems, both public and privately owned.

The task force began work earlier this fall in the wake of repeated reports of unsafe levels of lead in drinking water at public schools; contamination of public supplies by a range of toxic contaminants; and projections it could take up to $8 billion or more to fix the state’s aging system of pipes, some of which are more than a hundred years old.

McKeon said water audits ought to be part of any overall strategy. “To me, the DEP, or some other state agency, ought to have the authority to order it. A lot of entities don’t even know what they are losing,’’ he said. “I would think they would want to know.’’ It is important to know how much water is being lost through excessive leakage, McKeon said, citing the ranges heard by the committee. “Fifteen percent is reasonable,’’ he said, given the pressurization of most system. “Thirty percent is out of control.’’

Kennedy said one of the biggest challenges facing the state in dealing with drinking water systems is their diversity. Designing a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems they face does not work, Kennedy said.

For most issues, it is the smallest systems that face the biggest challenges, he said. Given the billions of dollars needed to address the problems, they will not be solved quickly, he added. “It is going to have to move incrementally and spread over generations,’’ he said.

Earlier, the committee heard U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democratic congressman from Monmouth County, say he was hopeful Democrats could work with Republicans and President-elect Donald Trump to put together a more robust funding plan to finance clean water and drinking-water projects.

That would mark a sharp reversal of the past two decades, in which funding for such projects has been flat or declining.

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