By James J. Florio and Christine Todd Whitman
July 15, 2014

New Jersey’s cities are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, with many urban centers recently posting population gains after decades of steady decline. Young people, in particular, want to live and work in vibrant downtowns and are voting with their feet. Employers are responding by relocating to urban areas in order to attract this talent pool.

But to accommodate the workforce of the future, cities need robust infrastructure — roads, rails, wires and pipes. Unfortunately, New Jersey has fallen behind other regions in managing its infrastructure, particularly in water resources in its urban areas.

Our water infrastructure is old, out of date and poorly maintained. Water supply lines in New Jersey’s cities can leak as much as 30 percent of the clean water that flows through them before it gets to its destination. Sewer lines are sometimes 150 years old, made of brick or wood, and held together only by the ground in which they’re buried.

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More intense and more frequent rainstorms stress these systems beyond their capacity, causing more frequent line breaks and forcing raw sewage into rivers, neighborhoods and even homes. And, as Hurricane Sandy has shown us, without action we risk being increasingly unable to withstand future severe weather events.

The problem has been ignored for many years, but a looming deadline means it must be addressed in many of our cities that have combined sewer and stormwater systems. By the end of this year, 21 New Jersey cities will face a government mandate for upgrades that will compel a multibillion-dollar investment. Our cities must address this crisis now, not only to meet regulatory requirements, but also to continue their nascent efforts to attract economic investment and workforce talent.

In May, we were pleased to lead a group of experts and thought leaders from various disciplines across the state who convened to work on this problem. Represented at the meeting, which was organized by the land-use policy organization New Jersey Future, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, were water and sewer utilities, investor-owned water companies, local officials, academic experts, environmentalists and community- and economic-development organizations. All were focused on developing what we have called an Agenda for Change to move this issue forward.

Included in the Agenda for Change are practical steps, including sharing and implementing best practices to drive down future costs, as well as ambitious items, such as identifying and leveraging new funding sources. In particular, the agenda recommends innovative new approaches like green infrastructure, which manages stormwater at the same time that it creates local jobs, beautifies cities and enhances real estate values.

Every item on the agenda is focused on strengthening New Jersey’s cities as drivers of the state’s future growth; fostering economic prosperity for all; making the state more resilient to severe weather; and creating healthy and sustainable places where residents can live, work and play. Investing in our urban water systems will pay dividends across the state.

New Jersey’s water infrastructure has been held together patchwork-style for a long time, and transforming it into a modern, sustainable system that can support growth and prosperity in the future is an enormous undertaking. It will require the sustained support of lawmakers, the business community, elected and civic leaders, and citizens.

And while the costs of fixing the problem are high in the short term, the costs of doing nothing will be far higher in the long term. We cannot be discouraged because it is difficult. Other cities across the nation have proved this is both possible and beneficial. All we need is the will.