Rate Increases Sought to Improve Water Infrastructure

By Erin Delmore

If you’re a customer of United Water, there’s a rate hike in store for you. How much is up to the Board of Public Utilities and the Ratepayer Advocate. United Water has asked for 18 percent.

“Clearly they’re trying to recover money that they’ve already been spent,” said Daniel Van Abs, associate professor at Rutgers University.

Money that’s been spent on repairs to existing infrastructure, according to the company. That’s because the pipes underground that carry water from treatment plants to our homes and businesses are decrepit. They’re more than 50 years-old in the suburbs, and more than 100 years-old in cities. They’re leaking, also. For every four gallons of clean water that flows through a faucet, one is lost underground through broken pipes. For United Water, it equals 10 billion gallons yearly. And that’s a problem across the state, no matter who your provider is.

“You only pay for what you use, but you’re paying a higher rate because you’re paying for all the water that had to be treated that went out through the pipes in the ground,” said Chris Sturm, Senior Director of State Policy for NJ Future.

Capital improvements come at a cost. United Water says it spent $187 million on recent upgrades. It can get $29 million back, per year, if the 18 percent rate hike goes through. The company said that would come to $8.36 per month, or just over $100 a year, on the average residential water bill.
Experts say the long-term cost of scrimping on maintenance is higher.

“When we don’t invest in our water infrastructure, we get water main brakes that interrupt services,” said Sturm.

Those service interruptions necessitate emergency repairs, often at a hefty price.

“Statewide, we’re well behind where we need to be. We have not invested in the past 30 years anywhere near what we should in terms of repair and replacement of these lines, so over the next 20 to 30 years, we are going to be spending billions of dollars repairing these lines,” said Van Abs.

Three years ago, the Board of Public Utilities started allowing water companies to tack upgrade fees to users’ bills. The last time United Water tried it was 2013 — when it asked for an 18 percent increase, and got 6.8 percent. The company raised rates 10 percent in 2011, and 7.7 percent in 2010.

Van Abs says that United Water customers don’t have much of an alternative. “The amount of water that we actually drink is a very, very small percentage of the water we use, maybe only 3-4 percent, so even if everything you drank was bottled water, that you purchased at a much higher cost than tap water, it would make no change in your rated.”

Here’s what you can do; opt for water-efficient appliances, like washing machines and dish washers, install low-flow fixtures on faucets, showers and toilets and limit outdoor watering.

“The perfectly green lawn really isn’t the sign of the environmentally friendly lawn,” said Sturm.

Water saved is money saved, and if that isn’t enough to convince you, remember everything that goes into your house or business comes out as waste water. Those systems are in desperate need of repairs, too.