Water Infrastructure a Major Topic at Assembly’s Budget Hearing for DEP

Water infrastructure dominated New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Acting Commissioner Catherine McCabe’s testimony during the Assembly Budget Committee’s hearing on the agency’s spending blueprint. Lawmakers quizzed McCabe on the state and complexity of the problem, as well as on plans to address it through asset management and other steps recommended by the Joint Legislative Task Force on Drinking Water, including new state revenues.

Asset Management
McCabe acknowledged the benefits of asset management in extending the life of current infrastructure, improving the level of service delivered by water systems, and reducing the lifecycle cost of maintaining water systems.

“[Asset management] is something any sensible business person would do,” said McCabe said. “Asset management is a critical tool to helping all of us and local governments get the management information and planning capacity they need to address [the state’s deteriorating water infrastructure] aggressively.”

McCabe acknowledged that the historical lack of industry practice in developing and implementing asset management programs is a challenge for New Jersey. The acting commissioner assured lawmakers that DEP is working with water purveyors to ensure that they are meeting the statutory requirements and deadlines of the Water Quality Accountability Act and will stay on the job until all the purveyors are in compliance.

McCabe acknowledged that another obstacle small, distressed systems encounter in trying to implement asset management is the lack of expertise and funding to hire outside experts. She mentioned that DEP can help smaller, distressed systems with some funding and technical assistance.  However, the acting commissioner admitted that small communities have needs greater than the DEP can currently supply.

McCabe said that DEP is already maximizing opportunities from the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank by providing assistance to small systems and requiring  asset management as a requisite to receiving State Revolving Fund loans. McCabe also mentioned that an additional $16 million in the federal budget is allocated to New Jersey to address drinking water and wastewater infrastructure.

Lead in Drinking Water in Schools
McCabe acknowledged that lead in drinking water is an additional consequence of inadequate or non-existent asset management plans. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, DEP’s regulatory role is limited to schools that have their own water systems, and the majority of schools in New Jersey receive water from public water systems. This results in DEP being unable to regulate lead levels directly in the school, but it can be done indirectly by regulating the public water systems.  

“DEP is always willing to come out and help and provide the technical advice to the local officials, to the water authorities that deal with these schools, but that is the extent of what we can provide. We do not provide funding to replace pipes for these schools,” said McCabe.

Schools that buy their water from a public community water supply system are not regulated by the DEP. They are regulated by the boards of education which have enacted rules to have schools test all their drinking water outlets. It is the responsibility of the school and the water supply authorities to address lead remediation, and while DEP does not necessarily perform these tests on its own, it primarily relies on the schools own testing to identify lead problem areas.

“Although it’s not DEP’s regulatory responsibility, of course we are concerned about lead in all the schools,” said McCabe, explaining that DEP has worked to develop guidance and provide information for schools on how to address lead in drinking water.

Relevant links

  • The hearing can be streamed in its entirety here.
  • The acting commissioner’s testimony is available here.
  • DEP’s responses to written questions that were submitted can be found here (pp. 2-4 are devoted to water infrastructure).
  • The Office of Legislative Services’ analysis is here.

DEP’s Priorities for Public Water Systems Based on Excerpts from DEP’s Responses to Assembly’s Written Questions

  • Q: What is the department’s highest priority to ensure the long-term viability of the public water systems in the State?
    A: The department’s highest immediate priority is to ensure that failing systems receive the proper oversight and support to ensure the proper operation and maintenance of water systems and delivery of water that meets drinking water standards.
  • Q: What other initiatives outlined in the Task Force report does the Department support?
    A: To ensure long-term viability of New Jersey’s public water systems, the Department supports many of the recommendations in the Joint Legislative Task Force Report, beginning with the implementation of asset management requirements.

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