A policy window of opportunity for water infrastructure action in New Jersey

New Jersey’s water is at a turning point, and on the first day of the 2021 Jersey Water Works (JWW) conference, speakers weren’t afraid to shy away from a strong message: As new federal funding for water infrastructure arrives, New Jersey can—and needs to—do better. Legacy water issues have plagued many communities for generations in New Jersey. According to keynote speaker Colette Pichon Battle, Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, federal infrastructure funding is an opportunity to improve the situation on the ground. She said that instead of asking “How do we get money to the ground?” governments should ask: “What is our new and equitable approach for advancing climate resiliency in our state?”  

The time is now. 

During the conference plenary, What’s new with capital funding and how can we make it accessible to all?, Dan Kennedy, Utility and Transportation Contractors Association and JWW Steering Committee member, emphasized that during this window of opportunity, “we need to get this right, and we need to get this done right now.” The plenary provided insights on who will have access when significant funding is finally available for capital investments in water. Sharing what currently happens with State Revolving Funds (SRFs) nationally, Katy Hansen, Environmental Policy Innovation Center, explained that “large communities are more likely to receive SRF financing, and communities that have a higher proportion of people who identify as non-Hispanic white.” Based on the data, she said “the hope would be that low-income, high-poverty places that have the fewest resources to repay a loan would receive grants.” The majority of SRF loans are going to low-income places. She suggests that the SRF program can enhance equity and resilience through state policy reform and provide more technical assistance to low-income places to help manage loans for greater community benefits.

There are federal resources available for water infrastructure, but more is needed. “EPA estimates that capital costs of wastewater and drinking water infrastructure needed to get our systems to meet federal water quality standards and public health standards [amount to] $744 billion over a 20-year period,” said Zach McCue, Office of U.S. Senator Cory Booker. “The need is overwhelming.” He emphasized resilience and access as priorities for municipalities that need funding the most. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide $11.31 billion for the Clean Water (CW) and Drinking Water (DW) SRFs over the next five years. Almost half of this total must be used as grants or full principal forgiveness. Additional funding includes:

  • $15 billion through the DWSRF for lead service line replacement
  • $1 billion for emerging contaminants in the CWSRF and $4 billion in the DWSRF
  • $5 billion for the Small and Disadvantaged Community Grant program

It also authorizes investment for climate resilience for small- and mid-sized systems ($25 million a year). New Jersey will receive $169 million for FY22, increasing annually until FY25 and 26, for a total of nearly $1 billion over five years.

Plenary panel speakers discuss equitable access to federal funding

How the funds are directed can make a difference in how environmental issues are addressed. Not every community has the ability to access funds or grants to address its urgent water needs. These communities are often unable to hire consultants to help with loan applications. Kareem Adeem, who directs the Department of Water and Sewer for the City of Newark, witnessed firsthand how direct funding can have a major impact on a utility and its community. Adeem shared lessons learned from Newark, specifically its lead service line replacement program. He recommends direct grant funding to disadvantaged communities for infrastructure projects. 

Funding is not only needed for water infrastructure projects, but also to ensure affordability of water services. Larry Levine, Natural Resources Defense Council, echoed this message in the workshop on affordability, Why Affordability Matters: Understanding Water and Sewer Burdens and Tailoring Solutions, saying that everyone, regardless of their income, deserves clean, safe water, and utilities also need sufficient revenue to provide essential services. Renee Koubiadis, New Jersey Citizen Action, said that customer affordability burdens are disproportionate and were amplified due to COVID. “The wealth gap for Black and Latino households nationwide is pretty big compared to white households, but in New Jersey, it is even more of a stark difference,” Koubiadis said. When an emergency, like the pandemic, happens, the cumulative impacts of affordability stresses make it more difficult to manage financially. A study on household affordability stress in New Jersey showed that baseline affordability stresses are not confined to old urban centers. Dan Van Abs, Rutgers University, authored the report and works on the JWW affordability subcommittee with Levine to advance affordability solutions, while also advocating for a statewide affordability program. 

Workshop speakers discuss water and sewer affordability burdens and potential solutions.

At this moment, Jersey Water Works can be the catalyst.

Nicole Miller, JWW co-chair, invited conference participants to join the collaborative and current members to stay engaged. She said that the public must be a partner at the beginning of innovative water infrastructure solutions. Throughout 2021, committees accomplished several projects that advance collaborative goals, and the collaborative looks to build on this momentum in 2022, with 31 members announcing their 2022 commitments to advance water projects.

The JWW network and partners have spent the past several years preparing for this policy and funding moment by framing the problem, building consensus, and advocating for policy developments. Now is the time to rally toward implementation and action. The collaborative has proven that it is changing how the system works. Now more than ever, we need you to help us set the direction for the next year to help New Jersey. We call on you now to join Jersey Water Works, take advantage of this policy window of opportunity, and put solutions into play—don’t be left behind.

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