What Will It Take to Repair New Jersey’s Ailing Water Infrastructure?

Lead is just the most publicized of several serious problems; meanwhile, costs for consumers continue to climb

The Legislature appears poised to take a crack at fixing the state’s aging drinking-water systems, which have exhibited several highly visible problems in recent months.

A special legislative task force would be given six months to come up with recommendations to deal with issues related to the drinking-water infrastructure under a measure (SCR-86) to be considered early next week.

The issue, long festering even while being acknowledged by state officials and experts, is daunting. New Jersey faces at least $8 billion worth of needed improvements, according to estimates by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The problems are well documented. Schools in Newark and elsewhere have had to switch to bottled water as water fountains and sinks have been found to contain high levels of lead, a dangerous contaminant. At least 20 percent of treated water leaks from aging pipes before it ever gets to the home. New pollutants, some not even regulated, show up in supplies more often.

As policymakers wrestle with those issues, the cost of delivering safe drinking water to consumers continues to rise. Yesterday, the state Board of Public Utilities approved a pair of rate increases, including one for Suez Water New Jersey, which is among the state’s larger water companies.

The safety of drinking water delivered to customers emerged as a top priority after reports last year of widespread lead contamination in the city supplies of Flint, MI, and then again after unsafe levels of lead were reported in 30 Newark schools last month.

“Lead is what made people aware of how fragile our drinking water is, but there are a lot more problems than just lead,’’ said Chris Sturm, who directs policy development and advocacy for New Jersey Future. “We all assume our drinking water is safe -- until it’s not.’’

For too long, those problems have been ignored, say some environmentalists.

“This administration especially, but others as well, are guilty of being (missing in action) when it comes to protecting our drinking water,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director for Clean Water Action, one of the state’s largest environmental organizations.

To some advocates, like Pringle, the state’s drinking water problems go beyond the water infrastructure to include what they perceive as a weakening of regulations to protect the source of potable water from rivers and streams in the New Jersey Highlands.

Still, Sturm said it is wise for legislators to focus on infrastructure problems while the public’s attention is focused on water issues.

Under the proposal, sponsored by Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), the six-member task force would consist of three state Senators, appointed by the Senate president, and three members of the Assembly, named by the Assembly speaker.

The task force would be charged with coming up with both short-term and long-term recommendations to address the quality and condition of drinking-water infrastructure in the state, much of which is more than a century old.

Whether the task force can effect any change in policies is uncertain, according to some.

“You can have all the task forces in the world, but what you need is money,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Where are they going to get the money?’’

Pringle agreed, in part. “There’s only so much action Legislature can do, but the power in this state rests with the governor,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, water rates continue to rise for customers. The BPU yesterday unanimously approved a 5 percent rate increase, or $3.87 per month for the average ratepayer, for the 200,000 customers of Suez Water in six northern counties. The company originally sought a 13.5 percent increase.

In addition, the agency approved a 35.6 percent increase, or a $10.76 boost per quarter in the typical bill for the 2,500 customers of Pinelands Water in Southampton in Burlington County.

Finally, the agency approved the acquisition of a small homeowners’ association water system in Byram Township by Aqua New Jersey, which will decrease water bills by about $22.65 a month

Original Article