NJ Future Senior Director: Upgrading Infrastructure to Keep Sewage Out of Waterways Will Take Time

In virtually every big storm, much of New Jersey’s vintage water infrastructure overflows sending a staggering 23 billion gallons of raw sewage into waterways and streets and even basements each year. The culprits are so-called combined sewer overflows (CSOs) which now violate the Federal Clean Water Act. Environmental groups sued the state Department of Environmental Protection, which has now issued permits that will force 25 cities and utilities to design new multi-billion dollar water systems without suggesting where the money will come from. New Jersey Future Senior Director of State Policy Chris Sturm told NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams that permits released last week by the DEP are a permit to pollute, but with lots string attached.

“They give the towns and the sewer treatment utilities three to five years to adopt very detailed plans that will specify exactly how they’re going to get these CSOs under control,” said Sturm. “And then once those plans are adopted, the permittees will be on the hook to implement them, which is a process that could take a couple of decades.”

On how the DEP regulations differ from federal EPA involvement in other states, Sturm said New Jersey cities are lucky because in most parts of the country, municipalities with CSOs are under legal sanctions that are imposed by courts or the EPA. Sturm said that New Jersey has a permit approach that offers municipalities the flexibility to design a solution.

Sturm said that combined sewer overflow are systems were built around the dawning of the 20th century. She explained that when it rains, water gets beneath the ground and mixes with sewage. The systems are designed to overflow deluded raw sewage directly into area waterways. She said and that they are now illegal and have to be fixed.

Recently Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club has been critical of the permits, saying until there are actually cleanup plans and funding in place, these are not permits, but rather permission to keep on polluting. Sturm said that it would be unrealistic to think that cities or the state could solve this problem overnight.

“We need to really understand what the solutions are and there’s some really innovative ones,” she said. “But as those plans emerge, as we understand the costs better, I think the cities and the state will be able to work together to come up with the funding. A lot of it’s going to fall on the shoulders of rate payers and that’s going to be true not just in the CSO cities but statewide. But there are other innovative ways to pull other kinds of resources which other places around the country are using.”

Sturm also explained that traditional gray infrastructure manages sewage underground, with large pipes and holding tanks that send sewage to the treatment plant. She said green infrastructure works above the ground to capture rain water before it goes down the drain and uses natural processes to absorb the storm water on site.

Whether she is optimistic that the new permits will lead to large scale water infrastructure updates, Sturm said, “You know there are real bright spots in New Jersey and in neighboring Philadelphia and New York. Mayor Redd will be speaking tomorrow at a Camden SMART event about the great things they’re doing to keep sewage and storm water from getting underground. They’re using water conservation ordinances and they’ve got over 40 rain gardens in place that are capturing sewage. Hoboken, facing all kinds of flooding, is building new parks that not only give people places to play in a crowded city but also capture storm water and in some cases have underground parking so they’re layering multiple solutions into one package.”