Jersey WaterCheck: A tool to help you be informed about your water system

Jersey WaterCheck was created by Jersey Water Works (JWW) to tell the story of our state’s water and water infrastructure needs. One of JWW’s goals is to promote transparency and to empower stakeholders, including customers, to be more engaged in decision-making surrounding water, which is why Jersey WaterCheck is designed to bring key facts, data, and metrics to a broad audience.

Water and wastewater systems themselves have been working to educate their customer bases to varying degrees, and data in Jersey WaterCheck can show us how.

One of the primary ways that water and wastewater utilities communicate with their customers is through their websites or social media channels. That makes sense in our interconnected world, as many people use the internet as their primary source of information. According to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center, 81% of Americans say they go online on a daily basis, and 28% report that they are online “almost constantly.” In New Jersey, almost 90% of the state’s 3.3 million households have some type of internet subscription, and most of those households have internet access through both broadband and cellular data plans (US Census American Community Survey 2019 1-Year Estimates, Table B28002).  

Customers expect water and wastewater systems to provide information online, and the Jersey WaterCheck analysis showed that most are. In fact, 528 of 540 water and wastewater systems had some online presence—a system website, a dedicated webpage, and/or a dedicated social media account.  Most of the systems that did not have an online presence were amongst those serving small populations. As New Jersey deals with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many systems have goals of limiting face-to-face contact, and many utility offices remain closed, so providing information online has become even more crucial.

Having an online presence is important, but as anyone who has surfed the internet knows, not all websites are of equal quality. Do these water and wastewater system websites have the information that customers need? And how accessible is that information? Jersey WaterCheck has metrics related to three areas of transparency: water quality, financial information, and leadership.

The vast majority of drinking water systems in New Jersey comply with state and federal primary drinking water quality standards. From 2015 to 2019, 95% to 98% of all drinking water systems in the state complied with federal and state maximum contaminant levels (MCLs). Over that same time period, 95% to 99% of all drinking water systems reported being in compliance with the state’s primary drinking water standards for coliform bacteria.

One way that water systems communicate the quality of their water to their customers is through the annual Consumer Confidence Report, or CCR. EPA requires community water systems to deliver a CCR to their customers by July 1 of each year.  Jersey WaterCheck has metrics looking at the number of clicks it takes to access the Consumer Confidence Report from the utility website’s homepage. Statewide, the average is two clicks, with a range of one to five. Fewer number of clicks indicates easier accessibility.

Another of Jersey Water Works’ shared goals is effective and financially sustainable systems. Jersey WaterCheck offers dozens of metrics related to water and wastewater finance, including how systems spend their money, what they charge for water and wastewater service, and whether they offer programs to assist customers who struggle to pay their utility bills.

Individual water and wastewater systems can be more transparent about their financial condition by making financial information such as an annual budget and/or annual audit report readily available online. Jersey WaterCheck metrics show that, statewide, it takes customers just two clicks to get from the utility homepage to the financial information, with a range of one to seven clicks. In addition, statewide, 88% of all water and wastewater systems post their utility rates on their website.

Finally, informed customers should know who is making the ultimate decisions on behalf of the utility.  For a government-owned utility, ultimate decisions are made by a governing body such a board, commission, municipal administrator/manager or mayor. For investor-owned utilities, ultimate decisions are typically made by an executive management team. Jersey WaterCheck has a metric showing that, statewide, 83 percent of water and wastewater systems list their governing body’s members online.

Jersey WaterCheck is a central repository for key information related to water in the state, but individual water and wastewater systems can continue to use and improve their own online presences to present data, share their stories, and empower their customers to be more engaged stakeholders.