By Michele S. Byers
If you are like most people, you probably do not pay much attention to where your water comes from or where it goes, but according to the Jersey Water Works collaborative, you should.
Jersey Water Works was founded in 2015 to raise awareness of the state’s aging water infrastructure – the essential systems that deliver drinking water, remove and treat sewage, and take storm water off our streets. Jersey Water Works is also finding innovative solutions to modernize and improve our water systems.
Given the age and condition of water infrastructure in New Jersey’s oldest cities and towns, this is an enormous task and it is expensive, with an estimated price tag of $25 billion over 20 years.
“Water infrastructure is so often not thought of until the streets and businesses in your community are shut down and you cannot drink the water coming out of your tap,” said Mark Mauriello, a former New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection commissioner and a current co-chair of Jersey Water Works.
Jersey Water Works is a cross-sector collaborative of 350 members representing about 220 organizations, all working together to transform New Jersey’s water infrastructure with cost-effective, sustainable solutions. The collaborative is staffed by New Jersey Future, a Trenton-based policy nonprofit.
One of the biggest problems is fixing what are called “combined sewer systems” in 21 of New Jersey’s oldest cities — systems in which storm water runoff from city streets combines with sewage and is sent to treatment plants.
These outmoded systems, some of which are more than 100 years old, often become overwhelmed during heavy rain and the mixture of storm water and untreated sewage overflows into rivers and streams. The mixture can also back up into streets, parks and even residential basements. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that every year, more than seven billion gallons of raw sewage are dumped into waterways.
In contrast, modern systems do not send storm water to treatment plants, thus reducing the volume of water to be treated and avoiding overflows.
“It’s a huge public health and environmental justice issue,” said Meishka Mitchell of the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership in Camden, a Jersey Water Works Steering Committee member. “A lot of localized flooding takes place in New Jersey’s most disenfranchised communities.”
Leaking water pipes are another huge problem, wasting an estimated 130 million gallons of drinking water a day in New Jersey alone, according to estimates by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Updating and maintaining New Jersey’s water infrastructure – and paying for it – is a challenge for all levels of government, including our incoming new governor.
On Dec. 1, Jersey Water Works will host its third annual conference in Newark, bringing together more than 300 state and local decision-makers, planners, engineers, utility representatives, residents and other stakeholders.
Christopher Daggett, president and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, will moderate a panel on priorities for the incoming administration of Governor-elect Phil Murphy. A new report, “Our Water Transformed: An Action Agenda for New Jersey’s Water Infrastructure,” will be released and discussed.
Another panel will explore what New Jersey can learn from New York state’s $2.5 billion water infrastructure investment. And in her keynote address, Kishia Powell, commissioner of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management, will share her nationally recognized work and outline approaches that New Jersey communities can replicate.
Learn more about our water infrastructure by visiting Jersey Water Works at jerseywaterworks.org
Michele S. Byers is the executive director or the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.