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STATE PERSPECTIVE

Reviving Water Infrastructure in New Jersey

By John F. McKeon

While energy and transportation assets are well known for being indispensable to our economy, our security, and our overall quality of life, the significance of a safe, reliable, and efficient water delivery system is habitually unheeded.

But while many of us get frustrated at the damage a potholed roadway can do to our car or worry about the stability of historic bridges, we would be equally troubled if we could see into our subterranean world.

There are about 60,000 miles of pipe buried within New Jersey, which if laid end to end, would be long enough to extend to and from California 10 times. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that New Jersey will require an investment of $7.96 billion by 2027 in order to continue to provide reliably safe water to the public. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, closing this investment gap would create $2.60 of economic activity for every $1 invested.

Many of New Jersey’s most densely populated water systems are either past or approaching the end of their useful life. Half of these segments were installed around the year 1920 or earlier. The city of Hoboken has averaged at least 20 water main breaks per year since 2012. These breaks shut down businesses, divert traffic, and jeopardize public safety.

Water mains have been leaking and bursting with increased frequency. A leakage rate of 25–30 percent has become the unofficial standard leakage rate in New Jersey—much higher than the national industry standard of 15 percent. This amounts to millions of dollars a year lost at the expense of ratepayers and taxpayers. When 1 in 10 people on our planet lack safe and reliable access to clean drinking water, there is something  simply immoral about a quarter of our supply being wasted annually.

Over the last 30 years, the U.S. population has increased more than 40 percent while the gross domestic product, or GDP, has grown from $2.5 to $7.5 trillion. Yet, federal capital investment in water infrastructure has decreased by a whopping 70 percent.

Thanks to the historic levels of dysfunction and discord in Washington, DC, state governments have no choice but to step up to the plate. Trenton must examine the Byzantine oversight and governance structure of our water utilities, where as many as four or five different agencies are responsible for our residents’ water supply systems. Streamlining this structure under one authority could help alleviate some unnecessary administrative complexity.

The legislature should also consider amending the way in which we require the Department of Environmental Protection to draft and release the statewide water supply plan. The recent release of the plan update was delayed by over 20 years, and the substance of the plan was disappointing in a number of ways. By making this plan more of a priority, we can develop a clearer and more prospective accounting of how our water supply can be protected from the threat of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns.

The 2017 Water Quality Accountability Act, among other requirements, mandates that all water purveyors implement by April 2019 an asset management plan designed to renew its infrastructure. This law represents an excellent first step in creating regulations that relate to water infrastructure, as opposed to water quality, which is already subject to a litany of important and well-regarded regulations that protect our supply. As the 2017 Water Quality Accountability Act moves toward implementation, it is critical that state agencies look for clear evidence of the fact that these plans are as thorough as they are necessary.

New Jersey already has a wonderful mechanism for water infrastructure funding. The New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust, established in 1988, has been authorized to spend up to $641 million on low-to-no-interest loans in 2018 for water infrastructure improvement projects. We must make sure the trust is properly collateralized and make a commitment to these projects in the long term as New York, California, and Massachusetts have.

The public faces a profound decision related to the safe and reliable delivery of water to the spouts at our homes and businesses. We can ignore the probability of system failure and the massive costs associated with them, or we can take action to prioritize the health and economic prosperity of future generations.

Assemblyman John F. McKeon represents the 27th legislative district in the lower house of the New Jersey State Legislature and is co-chair of the Joint Legislative Task Force on Drinking Water Infrastructure in New Jersey.

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