NJ Legislature Weighs In on Clean Water: Governor Is Up Next

A new governor takes the helm in New Jersey next week, and the state is looking ahead to a fresh start on environmental protection. High on the list is clean water. It’s a basic necessity of life. And it’s an issue consistently identified as a top environmental concern—indeed a top concern of any kind—by voters in New Jersey and nationwide. 

All New Jerseyans deserve affordable access to clean, safe water and sewer service that protects their health and our environment.  To ensure they get it, the state must bring its aging water infrastructure into the 21st Century. As described in a recent report by the Jersey Water Works collaborative (where I represent NRDC on the steering committee), this is an investment the state can’t afford not to make.  

With an eye toward the incoming governor, NRDC has joined with leaders in many fields—from New Jersey’s utility, environmental, community development, municipal, smart growth, industry, engineering, resilience, and planning sectors—to call on Governor-elect Murphy to embrace an ambitious clean water agenda for his first year.

That shared agenda emphasizes:

  • More public investment in water infrastructure;
  • Better and fairer ways to raise local funds for water systems;
  • Getting the lead out of drinking water in homes and schools; and
  • Expanding the use of green infrastructure in cities and suburbs to capture runoff and reduce sewage overflows.

This week, the Legislature laid down its own markers. A bi-partisan legislative Task Force issued its recommendations, and they track very closely the agenda advanced by NRDC and our partners. 

There’s a lot to unpack in the Task Force report. Below is my summary of the report’s key recommendations on the issues listed above. 

NRDC will continue partnering with New Jersey-based groups to advance these initiatives in Trenton this year.

State funding for water infrastructure upgrades

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates—and almost certainly under-estimates—that New Jersey will require an investment of over $40 billion over the next 20 years to meet its drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure needs. Solutions will have to include federal, state, and local funding sources. 

For the state’s part, the Task Force recommended:

  • Issuing $400 million in state bonds to support water infrastructure upgrades.  Taking a page from New York State, which last year passed a $2.5 billion, five-year water infrastructure grant program, these funds would be used to leverage additional investments by local water systems.  The Task Force acknowledged that the total investment needs are far greater, but offers this as a good start.
  • Prioritizing financial and technical assistance for economically distressed communities and small systems.  Use grant funds especially to help these communities improve asset management (more on that below); clean up sewage overflows; and replace lead service lines and lead plumbing.
  • Enacting legislation authorizing new ways to generate local revenue, in a fair way, for stormwater infrastructure.  (This is discussed further below.)

Accountability for proper maintenance, repair, and replacement of aging infrastructure

Last year, the state adopted legislation, known as the Water Quality Accountability Act, that requires drinking water utilities to develop and implement “asset management” programs. Far too often, systems simply react to costly infrastructure failures, rather than planning and acting pro-actively to keep systems in good shape and capable of meeting clean water standards. Effective asset management puts utilities in the pro-active mode, which saves money and enables the reliable provision of clean water.

The Take Force report calls for:

  • Fully implementing the Water Quality Accountability Act. This includes adoption, by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), of strong regulations that specify the minimum requirements for asset management programs. It also includes sufficient state funding for DEP to implement those regulations. (NRDC is participating in DEP advisory group to inform development of the regulations, and we look forward to seeing a proposal in the coming months.)
  • Passing new legislation to extend asset management requirements to wastewater and stormwater systems.   
  • Preparing a statewide analysis of water system capital investment needs, using data from systems’ asset management plans.

Reduce massive leakage from water systems

The Task Force cited NRDC’s estimate that, every day, 130 million gallons of treated drinking water leaks from New Jersey’s water systems. But most water systems have no idea how much water they’re actually losing. Figuring that out is an essential first step for utilities to get their water losses under control—and it’s an essential part of an effective asset management program.

The Task Force endorsed a set of proposals that comes directly from NRDC’s model legislation, which in turn is based on best practices from other leading states. Most of these provisions are included in legislation introduced in New Jersey last session, which NRDC strongly supported. 

Specifically, the report calls for legislation:

  • Requiring drinking water systems to:
    • perform annual water loss audits, with independent validation, using the modern, industry standard methodology;
    • report the audit results to DEP and utility customers; and.
  • Requiring DEP to:
    • post audit results publicly;
    • develop performance benchmarks for utilities to reduce water loss; and
    • provide technical assistance to help utilities perform the audits and take follow-up steps to reduce water loss.   

Ensuring water and sewer service are affordable for all

As communities in New Jersey inevitably raise their water and sewer rates to fund the local share of essential infrastructure investments, the state must ensure that water and sewer service remain affordable for all. These investments are vital to the health of communities, but it is just as vital to ensure that funding mechanisms are fair and equitable. 

Already, over the last 15 years, increasing capital investment needs (and decreasing federal financial assistance) have caused water and wastewater rates to rise nationally at about twice the rate of both inflation and income growth. Bill are increasingly expensive—as a share of household income—for many low-, moderate-, and fixed-income households in New Jersey.

To address this, the Task Force recommends:

  • Prioritizing economically distressed communities as recipients of state water infrastructure funding, to help keep the local share of infrastructure costs affordable.
  • Enacting legislation establishing a statewide, low-income customer assistance program for water and sewer bills, similar to the State’s household energy assistance program.
  • Exploring legislation to authorize local, rate-funded customer assistance programs.

 Further, many of the report’s recommendations—such as improving asset management and limiting diversion of utility revenues to general municipal budgets—will help control costs for all water and sewer ratepayers. 

Protecting children from toxic lead in drinking water

The lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, was a major motivation for the Task Force’s creation. With attention focused on lead in drinking water all around the country, it’s clear that serious lead problems are not limited to Flint. They’re very real in New Jersey too. The report notes that an estimated 350,000 homes and businesses in New Jersey are served by lead service lines, and that lead is “pervasive” in the drinking water of schools across the State.

The Task Force recommended:

  • Addressing lead in school drinking water by:
    • Allowing school districts to access state emergency repair funds to remedy lead-contaminated water; and
    • Updating testing and reporting requirements and publishing a statewide assessment of the problem and the needed repairs.
  • Addressing lead at the system-wide level by:
    • Enacting legislation requiring utilities to complete and publicize a comprehensive inventory of lead service lines; and
    • Creating a grant program for replacement of lead service lines and lead plumbing.
  • Securing improvements to the federal “lead and copper rule” or strengthening corresponding state regulations, to account for best available science and protect public health. 

The report doesn’t offer specific changes to the lead and copper rules.  But NRDC’s own recommendations include: requiring comprehensive system-wide inventories of lead service lines, which the Task Force proposed to accomplish by legislation; requiring full replacement of lead service lines and prohibiting partial replacements; requiring clear, ongoing, and culturally appropriate public education and notification of lead problems; reducing the “Lead Action Level” to 5 to 10 parts per billion; and strengthening corrosion control requirements.  Until a complete revamp of the rules is completed, DEP needs to establish strong water quality parameters, which are essential for optimizing corrosion control, and make sure that all systems comply with existing sampling protocols.

Sewer overflows and polluted runoff (a.k.a. “stormwater”)

Stormwater runoff is the most pervasive source of water pollution in New Jersey.  In older cities, it causes billions of gallons of raw sewage overflows. And in cities both old and new, it carries away animal waste, fertilizer, trash, pesticides, and sediment—directly into streams, rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. That same runoff causes local flooding when drainage systems simply can’t handle the water flowing off of the pavement, rooftops, and other hard surfaces that blanket so much of the state.

To help address these problems, the Task Force recommended:

  • Passing legislation to authorize local and regional stormwater utilities, which can take responsibility for stormwater infrastructure and generate local revenue to support it.
  • Increasing the use of green infrastructure by:
    • Updating DEP stormwater regulations to drive and reward green infrastructure techniques in development and redevelopment projects; and
    • Promoting green infrastructure in public capital projects, including sewage overflow cleanup plans, separate stormwater systems, road projects, and public facilities.

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