There has been a lot of press lately on infrastructure – concentrating on energy, roads, and tunnels. Yet, there’s another aspect of infrastructure in New Jersey that seems to take a back seat in the newspapers and blogs – the reliability, quality, and cost of our water systems.
So when you gather a bunch of water geeks together, what do you think the most important issue is? At such a forum today, sponsored by NJ Spotlight, one issue was repeated continuously – it was the thread that wound through the almost two hour discussion on our water infrastructure.
If you guessed reliability or quality, you would be wrong. Both of these were discussed. But the biggest issue on the plate for the assembled executives was communicating to the public the justification for rate increases.
I love NJ Spotlight. Its web site is a great source of information on the important issues in the Garden State. The organization is run by a bunch of displaced journalists with decades of experience. Their chair, Ingrid Reed, is the former director of the prestigious Eagleton Institute. But today’s forum, while informative, was a lost opportunity for substantive dialog.
While water industry executives, their lobbyists, and Governor Christie’s utility consigliore were on the panel, there were no consumer advocates, no environmentalists, and no lobbyists for the 25% of New Jerseyans who live in poverty or near-poverty. Tom Johnson of NJ Spotlight, an excellent environmental reporter, injected a few questions that challenged the panelists, but didn’t cause them to squirm.
The collection and distribution of potable water in the state is done by a mixture of hundreds of municipal water companies and a few regulated for-profit monopolies. And for the most part, they do a good job. When you turn on the tap, chances are pretty good that you’ll get water that’s relatively safe to drink. The average monthly bill for water was said to be less than $42 – affordable for most, but not all New Jerseyans. To see how out of touch the Governor’s outgoing BPU President is, consider the fact that Lee Solomon asserted that most families spend that much on bottled water. Maybe that’s true among the panelists, but I’m willing to bet my water bill that citizens of our inner cities and our rural poor don’t purchase much bottled water.
According to one of the panelists, Dennis Ciemniecki of United Water, there’s a proposal for a 25% rate increase in front of the regulators right now.
Like other aspects of New Jersey’s infrastructure, water collection and distribution have suffered from years of neglect. The money to pay for the needed improvement in sourcing, treatment, and distribution of water, whether it is in a municipal system or a private system, will eventually come from the taxpayer/consumer. And although the system is highly regulated, there’s always pressure, primarily from lobbyists and Republicans, to relax the regulations that are there to protect the consumer.
When asked about the impact of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for example, Solomon was not willing to say that this process was a threat to the environment – the jury’s still out, he contended. Karen Alexander, President of the New Jersey Utilities Association (she described herself as the “advocate for the utility industry”) went even further, saying that the impact of fracking needs to be based on science and that the public may have been misinformed by “certain films” on the topic. Her assertions went unchallenged; it would have been much more enlightening if the audience could have heard from an environmentalist at the same time.
Some of the discussion on water quality was also troubling. Ciemniecki equated a one part per billion level of contamination to a single blade of grass on a football field – hardly noticeable. But the impact of some toxins is cumulative, so discussion of “acceptable” levels of water quality should not be undertaken so cavalierly.
While the panel was clearly pro-business, some of its concerns are legitimate, and there were good ideas that deserve consideration. For example, as the recent severe weather has emphasized, there are areas of the state that are prone to flooding. Yet, we continually rebuild the damaged structures only to have them destroyed during the next annual hundred-year flood. Perhaps we should designate some areas as “blue acres”, and restrict housing after fairly compensating the current owners for their property and inconvenience in relocating. Perhaps we should invest in infrastructure for the millions of gallons of non-potable water – reused and/or untreated – that would supply industry with its water needs while taking the pressure off of the drinking water supply. Perhaps we should invest in infrastructure to more easily move water around the state so that the supply can be more balanced with the demand.
It is certainly less expensive to invest in improving aging infrastructure than to repair broken infrastructure. But like most issues that our elected officials face, it is complex and requires input from all the stakeholders. As NJ Spotlight organizes future forums on these critical issues, I hope it will select a more balanced panel so that the entire story can be told.