The American Rescue Plan has provided New Jersey state and local budgets with a surplus that can be used immediately to upgrade our failing water infrastructure, complete long-awaited health and safety improvements, and spur economic growth by ensuring that local contracting results in local jobs.
The American Rescue Plan delivered a total of $10 billion to New Jersey, including $6.4 billion for the state and $3.6 billion for local governments for many purposes, including investment in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. In addition to this state surplus, a proposed federal infrastructure package could offer even more funding if passed. With proper preparation and planning, a portion of these funds should be invested in long-term capital upgrades that will deliver both immediate and long-lasting benefits. Case studies in Camden and Newark demonstrate the benefits of smart infrastructure investment.
In Camden, strategic water investments delivered better environmental and community outcomes at a lower cost, as demonstrated by several projects implemented by the county’s municipal utilities authority (CCMUA). The utility has invested aggressively in treatment plant improvements that have sharply increased energy efficiency, such as upgrades to sedimentation tanks that maximize the use of gravity to separate out solids.
A combined heat/power system was also installed to convert biogas, a byproduct of the sludge management process, to electricity, providing about half of the wastewater treatment plant’s needed power. CCMUA also installed a 1.8 million watt solar array to reduce overall energy use by 10%. With these upgrades, CCMUA is on track to be a “net zero energy user,” producing the energy it requires to operate its treatment plant. Savings in energy and maintenance will exceed the debt service cost, so improvements were made without raising rates to customers.
Newark demonstrated that old lead pipes could be replaced quickly and efficiently. Other communities around the country took 15 to 25 years to do what Newark achieved in less than three years. Newark’s approach did not require any customer cost share or authorized access to private property. The program monitored the performance of water main crews and used community organizations to raise awareness about the program and the dangers of lead exposure. With the necessary funding, Newark’s successful approach can, and should, be replicated anywhere.
For too long, underground water systems have been “out of sight, out of mind.” This mindset allows problems to go unrecognized and unresolved, but now it is easier than ever for Garden State water consumers to connect with their local drinking water and wastewater treatment providers. A new website, NJWaterCheck.com, allows visitors to search for and learn about their water systems and become informed consumers who work with our local water and wastewater utilities.
The time to fix New Jersey’s unsafe water infrastructure is now. After the cautionary tale of Flint, Michigan, we know that it is imperative we remove lead pipes across the state to protect our children from the risk of permanent physical and psychological damage from lead exposure. Thanks to the action in Newark, we now know that it can be done with the urgency the matter deserves.
The federal and surplus funds create an opportunity to not only address much-needed infrastructure upgrades, but also to spur the New Jersey economy that has been hit hard by COVID-19. We can use water investments to benefit everyday people still recovering from the impacts of this devastating pandemic. In fact, a $1 billion investment in water infrastructure would provide almost a threefold benefit of $2.9 billion in economic activity and create or support 13,787 jobs throughout the state. By stimulating economic growth, infrastructure investments will complement more direct relief measures.
It’s time to fix New Jersey’s water infrastructure and promote the health of our children, waterways, and businesses. We can use sustainable and cost-effective methods to achieve these improvements in record time and employ recent laws to ensure water system transparency and accountability. The new federal and state funding will provide a unique opportunity to launch a smart investment program that allows us to put legacy problems in the rear-view mirror.
Nicole Miller is the principal consultant at MnM Consulting, a member of the Newark Environmental Commission, chair of the Newark Green Team and co-chair of NewarkDIG (Doing Infrastructure Green).
Andrew Kricun is a managing director with Moonshot Missions, a senior fellow with the U.S. Water Alliance and a senior advisor at the Water Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Both are also newly appointed co-chairs of Jersey Water Works.