Effort to transform New Jersey’s aging water systems begins to take shape

Posted on by Dodge

Change often begins with a conversation.

Facing a looming deadline to transform New Jersey’s aging urban water systems, key stakeholders began a conversation to map out solutions in May at a Jersey City meeting organized by New Jersey Future, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread. An officialAgenda for Changecatalyzing their shared mission and recommended courses of action was released last week.

“Everyone in the room agreed that this is one of the defining challenges New Jersey faces,” said New Jersey Future Executive Director Peter Kasabach. “For many reasons, upgrading our cities’ water infrastructure has been put on the back burner again and again, but we are now at the point where we cannot postpone it further without hindering the state’s economic prosperity and making us less competitive both in the region and in the world.”

You can read the Agenda for Change here.

Final permits for the combined sewer systems in 21 New Jersey cities are to be issued by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection later this year, at which point the organizations that oversee those systems will have three years to submit detailed long-term control plans for upgrading them. Currently the systems are overwhelmed more and more frequently by storms of increasing intensity, resulting in the discharge of raw sewage into waterways, basements, streets and neighborhoods. Needed upgrades will cost billions of dollars, as detailed in New Jersey Future’s recent report, Ripple Effects. Jurisdictions that fail to meet the deadlines for adopting and implementing these plans face the possibility of lawsuits and federal court sanctions.

These deadlines, all attendees agreed, present an opportunity for cities to create innovative and forward-looking water infrastructure plans that will foster prosperity and well-being, and that not only meet regulatory requirements for clean water but also generate additional benefits including improved public health, enhanced resilience to extreme weather, new local jobs, greater private investment and revitalized communities.

“Incorporating water infrastructure upgrades into redevelopment of our cities offers a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of innovative approaches tested in other cities, including use of green-infrastructure approaches that provide a myriad of benefits beyond wastewater and stormwater management, including cleaner rivers, increased public access to parks and waterfronts, job creation, and climate change resiliency,” said Chris Daggett, the president and chief executive officer of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

According to former Gov. Christie Whitman, an honorary co-chair of the event, “Funding is a key issue, but we need to take action despite the challenges we face. This is a question of public health, public safety and economic competition.  Every sector requires water that is potable and available.”

Former Gov. James Florio, also an honorary co-chair of the event, noted,  “Our urban areas are revitalizing due to demographic changes, including more young people who are attracted to cities. Urban economic growth is essential for New Jersey, but it depends upon high-quality infrastructure.”

George Hawkins, the general manager of Washington, D.C.’s water and sewer authority, discussed the importance of taking charge of water infrastructure plans, and urged those in attendance to “do it now, while you still have the flexibility to innovate,” and to use green-infrastructure approaches, which capture stormwater before it enters sewer lines and which create “so many benefits that people see and value and will pay for, including local jobs that cannot be exported.”

Roxanne Qualls, the former mayor of Cincinnati, discussed how her city approached its sewer upgrades: “What if it could be more than a sewer investment?” she asked. “What if it could be an opportunity for investment in distressed areas, and for the use of innovative and sustainable tools that provide a better solution at lower cost?” Regional cooperation was critical to accomplishing that, she said, and she urged attendees to collaborate and to look for opportunities to implement regional rather than individual solutions.

The agenda for change addresses these recommendations, and includes working regionally, identifying a variety of funding streams, and implementing “green-first” solutions wherever possible.  It also recommends educating and raising awareness about water infrastructure solutions as well as aggressive action to optimize the efficiency of existing systems.

“Having seen the vulnerability of its water systems during Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey understands the importance of resilient water infrastructure and has a great opportunity to be a national leader in state-wide innovation and upgrades,” said Lynn Broaddus, environment program director at The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread. “My hope is the established ‘Agenda for Change’ will not only serve as a catalyst for transforming New Jersey’s urban water systems, but will also inspire other states and communities to seek solutions and strategies for investing in their water infrastructure.”

The group agreed to re-convene in early fall to focus on implementation of the action agenda.

Full agenda for change, including a list of participants at the convening. Visit NJ Future’s website to learn more.

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