New Report Highlights State’s Water Infrastructure Crisis
May 6th, 2014 by Chris Sturm
New Jersey’s cities face a multi-billion-dollar price-tag to fix combined sewer systems that dump over 7 billion gallons of raw sewage into our waterways every year.
New Jersey Future has released a major report highlighting the extreme degree to which the water infrastructure in New Jersey’s oldest cities is in disrepair; the threat this represents to those cities’ economic vitality; and the many barriers faced by efforts to repair and upgrade it.
The report is being released in two parts. The first part, Water Infrastructure in New Jersey’s CSO Cities: Elevating the Importance of Upgrading New Jersey’s Urban Water Systems, is an analysis of the extent of the problems in cities with the most obsolete form of wastewater infrastructure, combined sewer systems. The analysis was prepared by a team led by Daniel Van Abs Ph.D., associate research professor in Rutgers’ School of Environmental & Biological Sciences and current chairman of the New Jersey Clean Water Council. The second part of the report, Ripple Effects, summarizes the major findings in the Van Abs report and includes case studies from four New Jersey cities with combined sewer systems.
New regulatory requirements being imposed because of the federal Clean Water Act will force upgrades to these systems that have a multi-billion-dollar price tag, according to the report, an amount many of New Jersey’s cities are unable to afford. However, as the report illustrates via case studies from four such cities, not upgrading this infrastructure can act as a significant drag on economic revitalization.
“Upgrading our water infrastructure is not just a federal and state mandate,” said Pete Kasabach, New Jersey Future’s executive director. “It’s an economic imperative for cities that want to continue attracting businesses and for residents who seek an urban environment where they can enjoy clean, dependable drinking water, and avoid encounters with raw sewage and stormwater.”
“The fundamental issue we face is that our water infrastructure is degrading, it will cost a great deal to fix or replace, and the costs will mount the longer we take to address the problem,” said Dr. Van Abs. “But moving forward, we can improve both our infrastructure and our cities in cost-effective (though still expensive) ways.”
Among the report’s findings:
- The cities with the oldest water infrastructure are seeing renewed growth pressure. They accounted for one-quarter of the state’s population growth between 2008 and 2012, and are projected to absorb one-fifth of future population and employment growth through 2040.
- In the 21 New Jersey cities with combined sewer systems, even routine rainstorms cause sewage to flow into streams, rivers and bays, to flood streets and parks and to back up into homes, creating a public health hazard.
- Drinking water and wastewater pipes need attention statewide, but nowhere more than in our older cities, where pipe systems are routinely more than a century old. In Hoboken, one of the cities studied, some pipes date back to the time of the Civil War.
- New Jersey cities now face federal and state deadlines to control their combined sewer systems, at a projected cost of more than $2 billion.
- Many of these cities lack the financial resources to pay for necessary upgrades; 36 percent of the state’s residents who live in poverty live in these cities.
- Upgrading is further complicated by the maze of interwoven authorities that govern water distribution, collection and treatment. Though New Jersey’s combined sewer discharges are on the scale of Philadelphia’s, instead of one city water department, there are 18 entities in charge of sewage collection and eight sewage treatment authorities, in addition to many more that manage drinking water systems.
- Redevelopment and innovative approaches such as the use of green infrastructure, which helps keep stormwater out of urban sewer systems, are helping to alleviate and sometimes reverse the problem in some areas.
The report also includes a series of case studies from four cities – Hoboken, Jersey City, Paterson and Camden – that have combined sewer systems. These case studies illustrate the degree to which residents and businesses are affected by their water infrastructure. In Camden, for example, a routine rainstorm can cause extensive flooding and sewage backups into residential areas, while in Jersey City, developers’ foresight in the 1970s in installing water infrastructure with extra capacity has helped to enable the city’s current waterfront redevelopment boom.
New Jersey Future is working with several national partners to bring together experts and thought leaders to address this issue and to develop an agenda for addressing it. The full proceedings from that convening, including recommended next steps, will be published.
The report was funded by a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and is available as follows:
- Water Infrastructure in New Jersey’s CSO Cities: Elevating the Importance of Upgrading New Jersey’s Urban Water Systems
What Experts Say
“We take for granted the infrastructure that delivers clean drinking water, removes waste, and diverts stormwater from our homes, businesses and neighborhoods – until it fails. With continued degradation of urban waterways, increased flooding from storm events, and threats to public health we know that we can no longer afford to defer maintenance and upgrades to these systems. Strong leadership from both the public and private sectors and adoption of proven innovative strategies for managing urban water infrastructure will ensure healthy, prosperous, and sustainable communities in New Jersey. “
— Chris Daggett, President and Chief Executive Officer, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation
“Investing in our urban wastewater infrastructure will not only result in improvements to water quality and protection of public health, but also enhance the long-term viability of our cities. Utilizing green infrastructure, such as greening streetscapes and installing rain gardens, can help address stormwater runoff and flooding and increase open space in our urban areas.”
— Debbie Mans, Baykeeper and Executive Director, NY/NJ Baykeeper
“We are finding strategic opportunities that improve the lives of residents today, while also preparing for future challenges. These kinds of creative approaches from the public and private sectors are needed to ensure that Hoboken can continue to thrive.”
— Stephen Marks, Assistant Business Administrator, City of Hoboken
“Jersey City was the first in the nation to pioneer the use of water chlorination for safe drinking water for residents in 1908. After the city’s deteriorating water system caused a water shortage in 1982, Jersey City was again able to serve as a model when it partnered with the private sector to develop the infrastructure critical to the city’s waterfront revitalization. Continued investments in our water and sewer infrastructure will help Jersey City to continue prospering.”
— Bob Cotter, Planning Director, Jersey City
“This report makes it clear that Paterson, the nation’s first planned industrial city, and its almost 150,000 residents rely on water infrastructure that was built in the 19th century. This antiquated infrastructure frequently overflows raw sewage into the Passaic River as well as residents’ homes and neighborhood streets, and this aging infrastructure is also the cause for elevated levels of lead in Paterson’s drinking water. The economic revitalization and future growth of Paterson will require investments to fix and replace the combined sewer system and lead water pipes, our two greatest water infrastructure challenges. Paterson’s hard-working residents – many of whom struggle to make ends meet – will need the support of federal and state leaders to secure resources for these much-needed improvements.”
— Alan Weinberg, Vice President of Policy, New Jersey Community Development Corporation
“The water infrastructure problem in Camden, and nationwide, is so serious that a great deal of money and time is needed to resolve it. However, we can make a difference now by being strategic in seizing opportunities, via green infrastructure, water conservation and targeted capital replacement to protect the public health and the environment, while simultaneously working to shape the clean water industry, utility and customer of the future.”
— Andrew Kricun, Executive Director, Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority
“After decades of decline, New Jersey cities have begun to outperform the rest of the state in population and employment growth. The water infrastructure upgrades now required by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection provide a great opportunity to fix ancient pipe systems that could threaten continued urban revitalization.”
— Chris Sturm, Senior Director of State Policy, New Jersey Future