Gov. Whitman and Mayor Baraka: 3 ways to ensure clean drinking water remains a priority

New Jersey Opinion
By Christine Todd Whitman and Ras Baraka
May 1, 2017

As a former governor and administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and as a mayor of New Jersey’s largest city, respectively, we are worried about water. We know that prosperous, healthy communities depend on modern, reliable water systems.

But too often they are grappling with the problems of old water infrastructure — problems like the amount of water that leaks out of pipes before it reaches the tap, and the persistent, dangerous presence of lead in older buildings’ pipes and fixtures.

Fortunately, New Jersey’s Joint Legislative Task force on Drinking Water Infrastructure has been addressing this issue.

On May 5 it will hold its final in a series of public hearings into the state of the state’s water systems. This hearing will focus on solutions. The task force report, including recommendations, is due out sometime later this summer or fall.

If we could be permitted to give the members of the task force some advice, we’d suggest three key areas on which to focus their recommendations.

System management

Leaking pipes and emergency breakdowns mean lost revenue and high repair costs, both of which make water more expensive to customers. Estimates of the loss of treated water before it reaches the tap run as high as 30 percent in some areas. System operators should be asked to conduct a regular audit to determine how much treated water is lost before it reaches the tap, and to develop a realistic plan for system maintenance and repair.

Proactive audits and management plans are like good medical care — they help prevent future problems, keeping the system healthier and costs lower. Although there have been some good first steps in this direction, right now there are too few statewide requirements for preventative maintenance, and not enough technical assistance or training.

Transparency

To help ensure clean, safe drinking water, state and federal regulators require regular testing, public reporting, and, when water contamination is detected, direct notification of individual users. But, just as there has been too little emphasis on system management, government regulators have also not focused on informing the public whether the infrastructure that delivers that water is in a state of good repair. Since water pipes are buried underground, system condition only becomes apparent when something serious occurs, like a water main break.

System operators should be required to make key metrics of system condition, such as whether pipe condition is improving or getting worse, available publicly. This kind of transparency will help hold drinking water utilities accountable on one hand, and build ratepayer support for long-overdue capital investments on the other. Innovative tools like the Newark Mayor’s Data Dashboard and the City of Newark Open Data Portal can make this information accessible.

Help with paying for needed improvements

Most local water systems are small or old or both. The cost of addressing decades of deferred maintenance can be overwhelming. But we all need water, and the investment needed to catch up on repairs is unavoidable. However, it must also be affordable to everyone, and leadership at the state level can make this easier.

We urge the task force to recommend ratepayer assistance programs, matching grant programs, and similar tools, that deploy investments in our water systems that bring the greatest cost savings and operating efficiencies in the places where they can have the greatest impact.

As a mayor concerned with delivering safe drinking water at an affordable rate to city residents, and as a former governor and administrator of the EPA responsible for protecting and preserving clean drinking water, we understand the importance of shepherding water as a resource in all its forms.

Drinking water, stormwater, and even wastewater must be considered as assets, and managed accordingly. We commend the task force for taking on this vital issue, and we look forward to its recommendations for ensuring holistic water solutions for all New Jersey residents and businesses — not just for today but for generations to come.