Thursday, January 5, 2017

New Jersey’s aging infrastructure leaks up to 30 percent of its water before it ever reaches the tap

New Jersey is losing 30% of its drinking water because of leaking pipes

New Jersey’s aging infrastructure leaks up to 30 percent of its water before it ever reaches the tap. Earlier this month, a legislative task force began exploring ways to fix the problem.

One hurdle that emerged is that many systems do not have a handle on just how much water is being lost, leading the co-chairman of the group to ask an assistant commissioner at the Department of Environmental Protection why water-loss audits are not mandated.

“Why doesn’t the state require it of everyone?’’ asked Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), after hearing that such audits are routine for the Delaware River Basin Commission, the source of drinking water for 15 million people in the region.

“We’ll take it back as something to consider,’’ replied Dan Kennedy, the assistant commissioner in charge of the department’s water programs. “This is a long-term issue the department is getting a handle on.’’

The loss of water from the state’s infrastructure emerged as one of chief topics at the second meeting of the task force, which was appointed earlier this year to look at problems in the state’s drinking-water system.

After the December 14 meeting, McKeon questioned how the New Jersey expects to address those issues without determining where and how much water loss is occurring at the hundreds of systems delivering water to consumers. The systems include a handful of larger purveyors and many small systems, both public and privately owned.

The task force began work earlier this fall in the wake of repeated reports of unsafe levels of lead in drinking water at public schools; contamination of public supplies by a range of toxic contaminants; and projections it could take up to $8 billion or more to fix the state’s aging system of pipes, some of which are more than a hundred years old.

McKeon said water audits ought to be part of any overall strategy. “To me, the DEP, or some other state agency, ought to have the authority to order it. A lot of entities don’t even know what they are losing,’’ he said. “I would think they would want to know.’’ It is important to know how much water is being lost through excessive leakage, McKeon said, citing the ranges heard by the committee. “Fifteen percent is reasonable,’’ he said, given the pressurization of most system. “Thirty percent is out of control.’’

Kennedy said one of the biggest challenges facing the state in dealing with drinking water systems is their diversity. Designing a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems they face does not work, Kennedy said.

For most issues, it is the smallest systems that face the biggest challenges, he said. Given the billions of dollars needed to address the problems, they will not be solved quickly, he added. “It is going to have to move incrementally and spread over generations,’’ he said.

Earlier, the committee heard U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democratic congressman from Monmouth County, say he was hopeful Democrats could work with Republicans and President-elect Donald Trump to put together a more robust funding plan to finance clean water and drinking-water projects.

That would mark a sharp reversal of the past two decades, in which funding for such projects has been flat or declining.


What Will It Take to Repair New Jersey’s Ailing Water Infrastructure?
Tom Johnson | April 28, 2016
Lead is just the most publicized of several serious problems; meanwhile, costs for consumers continue to climb

The Legislature appears poised to take a crack at fixing the state’s aging drinking-water systems, which have exhibited several highly visible problems in recent months.

A special legislative task force would be given six months to come up with recommendations to deal with issues related to the drinking-water infrastructure under a measure (SCR-86) to be considered early next week.

The issue, long festering even while being acknowledged by state officials and experts, is daunting. New Jersey faces at least $8 billion worth of needed improvements, according to estimates by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The problems are well documented. Schools in Newark and elsewhere have had to switch to bottled water as water fountains and sinks have been found to contain high levels of lead, a dangerous contaminant. At least 20 percent of treated water leaks from aging pipes before it ever gets to the home. New pollutants, some not even regulated, show up in supplies more often.

As policymakers wrestle with those issues, the cost of delivering safe drinking water to consumers continues to rise. Yesterday, the state Board of Public Utilities approved a pair of rate increases, including one for Suez Water New Jersey, which is among the state’s larger water companies.

The safety of drinking water delivered to customers emerged as a top priority after reports last year of widespread lead contamination in the city supplies of Flint, MI, and then again after unsafe levels of lead were reported in 30 Newark schools last month.

“Lead is what made people aware of how fragile our drinking water is, but there are a lot more problems than just lead,’’ said Chris Sturm, who directs policy development and advocacy for New Jersey Future. “We all assume our drinking water is safe -- until it’s not.’’

For too long, those problems have been ignored, say some environmentalists.

“This administration especially, but others as well, are guilty of being (missing in action) when it comes to protecting our drinking water,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director for Clean Water Action, one of the state’s largest environmental organizations.

To some advocates, like Pringle, the state’s drinking water problems go beyond the water infrastructure to include what they perceive as a weakening of regulations to protect the source of potable water from rivers and streams in the New Jersey Highlands.

Still, Sturm said it is wise for legislators to focus on infrastructure problems while the public’s attention is focused on water issues.

Under the proposal, sponsored by Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), the six-member task force would consist of three state Senators, appointed by the Senate president, and three members of the Assembly, named by the Assembly speaker.

The task force would be charged with coming up with both short-term and long-term recommendations to address the quality and condition of drinking-water infrastructure in the state, much of which is more than a century old.

Whether the task force can effect any change in policies is uncertain, according to some.

“You can have all the task forces in the world, but what you need is money,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Where are they going to get the money?’’

Pringle agreed, in part. “There’s only so much action Legislature can do, but the power in this state rests with the governor,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, water rates continue to rise for customers. The BPU yesterday unanimously approved a 5 percent rate increase, or $3.87 per month for the average ratepayer, for the 200,000 customers of Suez Water in six northern counties. The company originally sought a 13.5 percent increase.

In addition, the agency approved a 35.6 percent increase, or a $10.76 boost per quarter in the typical bill for the 2,500 customers of Pinelands Water in Southampton in Burlington County.

Finally, the agency approved the acquisition of a small homeowners’ association water system in Byram Township by Aqua New Jersey, which will decrease water bills by about $22.65 a month.


Lead Scare Over Water in Newark Schools Underscores NJ’s Toxic Problem
Tom Johnson | March 10, 2016
Testing at 30 schools reveals lead levels above federal EPA action guidelines, triggers emergency response including use of bottled water

Cleveland Elementary, one of 30 Newark public schools that had elevated lead levels in its water.

High levels of lead found in the water at 30 Newark public schools, which forced authorities to switch to bottled water for thousands of students, is just the latest sign that the state is far from resolving this problem, advocates said yesterday.

The findings, detected in annual testing of fountains, taps and faucets in the school system’s 65 buildings, triggered an emergency response by city, state, and other agencies, compelling them to truck in alternative water sources overnight Tuesday. The elevated levels were first reported to school officials Friday and confirmed over the weekend.

Childhood lead poisoning -- a decades-old problem that has seen major strides made in reducing exposure -- suddenly reemerged last year as a national issue when Flint, MI, water supplies were found to contain dangerous levels of the substance.

New Jersey has its own lead problems, chiefly caused by exposure to now-banned lead paint peeling in older homes primarily located in urban areas. In 2014, more than 3,000 children under age 6 were found to be suffering from lead poisoning, according to Department of Health data. Of 14,030 tested in Newark, 770 or 5.7 percent had elevated blood levels. In Camden, the local school district switched to bottled water after lead was found in its system.

“It’s a health epidemic in New Jersey. It needs to be fixed,’’ warned Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing and Community Network of New Jersey, a group lobbying for increasing funds to lead-hazard abatement efforts.

The Legislature also is concerned about the problem, recently introducing bills to allocate $10 million to a lead-hazard control fund, which has been line-item vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie. At a recent press conference, the governor said the issue has been “overdramatized’’ by lawmakers and others.

In Newark yesterday, Mayor Ras Baraka, school officials, and state Department of Environmental Protection representatives, sought to reassure residents and parents that the problem is being addressed and to minimize the health risks posed by the lead levels found in the schools.

“Our water source is safe in Newark,’’ the mayor said, referring to the city-supplied drinking water. “There are a few issues in the schools.’’

The high levels of lead probably were a result of old lead plumbing, service lines, and lead solder from the street to the buildings, according to officials. For the past few years, Newark has been adding a corrosive agent to drinking water to prevent lead leaching from the fixtures. It also has installed filters on water fountains.

Chris Cerf, state-appointed superintendent of schools, said the situation in Newark “is an entirely different story’’ than Flint, where lead levels exceeded 13,000 parts per billion (ppb).

Of the samples tested that were found to be above the 15-ppb action-level set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), most were found to be in the 15-ppb-to 100-ppb range, Cerf said. The highest level detected was 558 ppb at Bard High School. None of the buildings had more than four samples with levels above the action level, Cerf said.

“In an abundance of caution, we are going the extra mile,’’ Cerf said at a hastily arranged news conference at Newark City Hall.

 But Berger said there is no safe level of lead exposure to children. “Any exposure to lead is a threat,’’ she said. Lead poisoning can cause lifelong learning and health problems, according to experts.

For Kim Gaddy, a former school board member who is seeking another term, the results are an “outrage.’’ When she first served on the board in the early 1990s, the school system’s 80 buildings were found to have high levels of lead. Her own godson was diagnosed with lead poisoning.

“I feel very disappointed they (school officials and the state) have allowed this to rise again,’’ said Gaddy, who is environmental organizer for Clean Water Action, one of the state’s largest environmental groups.

At the press conference, officials could not say what recent lead testing found in water supplies at the Newark schools. “We’ve only seen a portion of the data from previous years,’’ said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin. The agency said it was informed of this year’s results, taken in December, on Monday.

The schools will be retested again for lead in the upcoming days, officials said. In addition, the top 15 communities where high levels of lead have been found in children are having their school districts’ supplies tested, they noted.

For parents concerned about their children, they can have them tested for lead at the Newark Health Department. Baraka also appealed to residents to donate up to two cases of bottled water to the city to help out with providing alternative water supplies.

“What matters most is how much lead is getting into the body,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director of Clean Water Action. “We already know it is already happening in Newark.’’

Other elected officials said the problem indicates the need to fix the state’s crumbling infrastructure. “The situation underscores the need for action to fix or replace lead contaminated water pipes that threaten the city’s safety,’’ said Newark Congressman Donald Payne Jr.

To that end, Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset) said late yesterday he would sponsor a measure to fund up to $20 million for lead abatement in Newark and other state locations. Bateman suggested using the state Clean Energy Fund to finance the effort, a source of money often siphoned off by various administrations and Legislatures for purposes beyond its original intention


Troubles with NJ Drinking-Water System: Easy to Spot, Costly to Correct
Tom Johnson | December 1, 2016
The most vexing difficulty with water system may be where to find the money to fix wasteful problems

Here’s why it will cost billions of dollars to overhaul the state’s aging drinking-water infrastructure:

At least 20 percent of the system is more than 100 years old. Between 20 percent and 30 percent of treated water leaks from the system before it ever gets to the faucet. At least 137 public schools in New Jersey tested positive for lead in at least one drinking-water outlet this year.

No wonder a legislative task force yesterday began delving into what improvements are needed in the system delivering drinking water to customers. The lawmakers heard plenty about the problems, but few answers on where to get the money to solve them.

“The hardest part is where will the money come from,’’ conceded Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), co-chair of the Joint Legislative Task Force on Drinking Water Infrastructure.

Do not pin your hopes on the federal government, warned the other co-chair, Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex). The federal government has shaved funding for drinking water projects by 75 percent in recent years, he said.

All of which likely means that if investments are to be made in the future, it will translate into higher bills for customers, who now pay roughly a penny a gallon for drinking water, according to Andrew Hendry, president of the New Jersey Utilities Association. His group represents six investor-owned water companies, serving about 40 percent of the state’s population.

There may not be a consensus yet on how to pay for the needed upgrades, but there was wide agreement that the state’s economic future and much more depends upon a clean and affordable supply of water.

“Failure to invest in our water infrastructure will result in high costs down the road, damage to the state’s economy, and deterioration of our quality of life,’’ Hendry said.

To bolster investments, several speakers agreed that better data is needed on the state of the water infrastructure, along with guidance from political and industry leaders.

“Utility leadership will be needed to help people understand the needs, how their money will be invested well, and how we measure success,’’ said Daniel Van Abs, an associate professor at Rutgers, and former project manager for the 1996 statewide water supply plan, the last one completed by the state Department of Environmental Protection. (Van Abs is a regular contributor to NJ Spotlight.)

Van Abs also cautioned that the state needs to ensure that lower-income households are not harmed by utility rates necessary to boost investment in the systems. That is especially true in cities where up to one-quarter of the population is below the federal poverty line, he said.

One way to reduce costs is through improved efficiency, according to former Gov. James Florio, citing the projections that leaky pipes can lose up 30 percent or more of treated water before it ever gets to the home.

An underlying problem, however, is the fragmented nature of the state’s water system, with hundreds of municipal and regional public and private water utilities, Florio said. These smaller organizations have limited staff and consulting capacity, and less access to capital.