Our water infrastructure is failing us.Consider the following:
- In some communities, as much as 30 percent of clean drinking water is lost through pipe leakage before it ever gets to your tap. That’s water that utilities have invested in treating, but can’t charge for.
- Some of the water infrastructure in our older cities dates back to the Civil War. Old water and sewer mains break, shutting down businesses, making travel and commerce difficult, and necessitating costly emergency repairs.
- In 21 of our older communities, rainstorms regularly overwhelm antiquated combined sewer systems. As a result, diluted raw sewage flows into nearby waterways – and sometimes backs up into neighborhoods and basements. The state Department of Environmental Protection has issued permits to those cities and treatment utilities requiring them to institute plans to remedy this problem.
- EPA estimates of the cost to upgrade New Jersey’s water infrastructure will top $40 billion over the next 20 years.
That’s a huge price tag.
However, the state’s economic competitiveness depends on modern, safe, reliable water management. No one solution will be sufficient for a problem so large and complex, and fortunately, a new coalition of organizations and individuals with a vested interest in upgraded water infrastructure is working on a broad range of approaches.
Jersey Water Works is a unique public-private collaborative that includes private-sector water utilities, engineering firms and contractors, regulators at the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, municipalities, public water and sewer utilities, environmentalists, and community organizations. Their goal is to forge a suite of solutions that collectively can help upgrade the water infrastructure in cities and towns across New Jersey. Their work to date is focusing on:
- Encouraging the use of business-like systems for managing water infrastructure assets so that repairs and upgrades are scheduled before costly and unpredictable emergency breaks occur;
- Helping water utilities and community groups to educate and engage ratepayers and elected leaders so that they understand the value of drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems and support necessary investments;
- Promoting the use of “green infrastructure” features such as pervious pavement, bioswales and rain gardens, all of which collect stormwater before it hits the sewers and help prevent flooding while beautifying neighborhoods and raising property values.
And while the inadequacy of New Jersey’s water infrastructure is a serious and long-term problem, the economic benefits of solving it will start to become evident almost immediately. A United States Conference of Mayors report estimates that every dollar of investment in upgrading water infrastructure adds almost $9 to the economy through wages and additional activity in related industries. Just as significant, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that nationally, the decline in service and reliability that comes with failure to invest will result in additional costs of $147 billion to small businesses and $59 billion to households over the next 20 years. These are costs we can’t afford, but we can avoid.
One of the biggest benefits to our cities and towns of investing in upgrades to our water infrastructure will be in the form of added value and opportunity. The installation and maintenance of green infrastructure will provide local jobs and job training, including in places where the need for them is greatest; waterfronts will be cleaner and more available for recreation and tourism; neighborhoods will be healthier, more vibrant and more attractive, and property values will rise; and employers looking for places to expand or relocate will give places with 21st-century water infrastructure an edge in their considerations. In other words, such upgrades will contribute to the sustainability of our communities and result in triple bottom line benefits – economic, social and environmental.
With all of this on the table, why wouldn’t we invest?
The Dodge Foundation is supporting Jersey Water Works because we believe that a broad-based response is needed to the problem of our aging water infrastructure, and we know that addressing the problem will open the door to greater economic growth for the state.
I encourage anyone interested in helping to address this problem to attend Jersey Water Works’ second annual water conference on Friday, Dec. 2 in Newark, where national and state experts will convene to identify new strategies and opportunities that drive economic growth in our communities. Please join us and help make New Jersey a national model for water infrastructure innovation.
Chris Daggett is CEO and president of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which provides financial support to the Jersey Water Works collaborative.