By Brenda Flanagan
“It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen every day. There’s a water main break every day in some part of the city,” said pipefitter Mike Maloney.
Maloney told New Jersey’s Joint Legislative Task Force on Water Infrastructure that at any moment water lines can rupture somewhere in New Jersey and that pipes leading to and inside homes, schools and public buildings often contain toxic lead solder — including the State House Annex.
“This building — I will bet you a cup of coffee — has lead in it. I worked in it. I installed pipes in it. So I’m sure it does,” Maloney said.
Task force members face fixing a formidable problem, most of it hidden underground, where an estimated 30,000 miles of up to century-old underground pipes often crack and flood the streets. Hoboken alone averaged 20 to 30 main breaks a year in 2012 and 2013.
“Right now we’re operating mostly with a patchwork of emergency repairs — especially in municipal systems — and a potential future of holding systems together with what amounts to chewing gum and bailing wire,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein.
And 30 percent of treated drinking water gets lost to leakage.
“Thirty percent. It’s immoral, to start with, and it’s just dumb. Think of the cost on the ratepayer,” said Assemblyman John McKeon.
While the public often opposes rate hikes, experts testified money’s needed to repair critical infrastructure. Renovating New Jersey’s will cost an estimated $8 billion over 20 years, but according to the New Jersey Clean Water Council, it’s the only way to maintain a viable economy.
“Putting off investments will hit low and moderate income households even harder at some point in the future when these costs all come due. So we need to have a way of encouraging the investment,” said New Jersey Clean Water Council member Daniel Van Abs.
But who will pay, and how? Six major companies including American Water and Suez serve 40 to 45 percent of Jersey’s population. They make significant investments in replacing old pipelines. For example, before-and-after pipe segments show how cleaning out iron and manganese deposits can increase a water main’s lifespan by some 50 years.
Ratepayers understandably balk at increases, but New Jersey Utilities Association President and CEO Andrew Hendry says, “Our companies estimate it’s 10 times more costly to make emergency repairs than to upgrade infrastructure proactively.”
The rest of New Jersey’s residents get water distributed via a patchwork of smaller private and public utilities. Some do invest in their facilities, but a study of 100 municipal budgets showed water utility revenues often get siphoned off.
Association of Environmental Authorities Executive Director Peggy Gallos said, “We calculated that about $80 million had been transferred in one three-year period. Some municipalities become very dependent on these annual diversions and they supplement their municipal budget with them.”
The task force will meet again and called for updated information on rates to compare with larger water companies that charge perhaps a penny a gallon.
“I’d like to see water rate schedules from all our locally-owned municipal utilities just so we can compare that to see whether they’re charging near that — I happen to think not — so they have the revenue to do the work,” said Assemblyman John DiMaio.
A day-long conference on the state’s water infrastructure is planned for this Friday. Advocates will look for ways to plug leaks, fix pipes and figure out how to pay for it all.
Jersey Water Works Conference 2016 takes place Friday, Dec. 2 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. The second annual Jersey Water Works Conference is a day-long event that will bring together more than 300 state and local decision makers, practitioners and stakeholders to amplify the importance of addressing New Jersey’s water infrastructure, explore innovative solutions and celebrate the progress of New Jersey Water Works. Contact Jane at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.