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Triumphs and Worries of Water Infrastructure

New Jersey’s water infrastructure is aging, and utilities are racing to keep pace.

New Jersey’s vast water infrastructure can arguably be divided into several components, including, for example, treatment and distribution assets such as water mains – the latter of which have been aging throughout the state, and in some instances are more than 100 years old. Replacing water mains requires, in part, heavy equipment for excavating pavement/soil, removing old pipes, installing new ones – and paying millions of dollars for the process. 

Cheryl Norton, president of New Jersey American Water and the chief environmental officer for American Water, says replacing mains not only prevents expensive-to-repair water main breaks and keeps water from wastefully leaking from old pipes, but she also notes that old pipes: have sediment that can impact water treatment disinfectants and, in turn, foster bacteria; may corrode and affect water quality; and can additionally discolor water. Norton advocates for proactively replacing water mains. 

For an investor-owned utility such as New Jersey American Water, obtaining approved rate increases from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) and funding in general is feasible; the utility invested $375 million in its infrastructure in 2019, with a steady stream of 2020 investments so far, ranging from projects in West Orange and Lakewood, to Fanwood and Hillside, as just a few examples. 

At another water company – SUEZ – one of its divisions, covering much of Bergen and Hudson counties, Lambertville, the Highlands and Princeton Meadows – likewise invested $110 million in infrastructure improvements in 2019. It has already begun another $136 million in projects this year. SUEZ’s other New Jersey division, Toms River, invested an additional $9 million in improvements last year on important projects. 

SUEZ says that while some projects are on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, it has many projects shovel-ready to begin as soon as the work can be done safely. 

Water pipe replacements are often prioritized according to a range of factors such as age, frequency of an area’s main breaks, and the mains’ vintages (pipes from the 1930s, for example, may actually be of higher quality than those from later decades). Of note, New Jersey American Water, for example, invested approximately $4 million in leak detection equipment that can help determine whether or not underground pipes are sound. 

Who Owns the Assets? 

Approximately 75 water entities in New Jersey are investor-owned utilities, with others existing as government/municipal water authorities or utilities, for an aggregate total of more than 300 water providers (those with at least 500 connections) serving New Jersey’s  residents and businesses alike. 

Since the BPU regulates utilities, water companies cannot arbitrarily raise their customers’ rates to replace assets without clear oversight and a lengthy approval process. 

New Jersey’s Water Quality Accountability Act is yet another factor in the equation, since it – in part – guides entities to replace assets by certain deadlines (utilities often aim to replace their mains long before then). 

Norton explains, “When [New Jersey American Water] makes investments all across the state, we’re able to spread the costs among our 700,000 customers; an investment we make in a small community doesn’t cause those customers to pay a huge amount of money.” 

A municipal water authority, on the other hand, may require millions of investment dollars for, say, 5,000 customers, since it lacks the economies of scale that larger water companies possess. 

Therefore, New Jersey water infrastructure assets that at times may more often experience replacement delays are those owned by governments/municipalities. In order for these entities to obtain monies for water infrastructure, residents might shoulder costs – an action any elected official (especially in a high-property-tax state like New Jersey) is likely loathe to take. 

Norton explains, “A lot of communities have not invested in water infrastructure because they don’t want to have that kind of a huge rate impact, and [again] – from a political perspective – [officials] don’t want to get voted out of office, sometimes.” 

It’s part of a broader concern regarding old water infrastructure, of which Norton says assets are, overall, “out of sight, out of mind.” She adds, “If you are not having issues [with pipes] that you can’t see or feel, then people just don’t worry about it.” 

Additional Water Quality Factors 

Years ago, water treatment plants had historically been designed to neutralize bacteria and viruses – and not the PFAS, PFOAs, PFOS, and wide array of other chemicals now finding their way into water systems. 

Additionally, US residents ingest an extraordinarily large amount of pharmaceuticals, and these medications may not be fully metabolized. When they are excreted into toilets, they may add traces of endocrine-disrupting pharmaceuticals to the water supply – a scenario that water quality experts have bemoaned for several decades. Personal care products also likely impact water quality, for example. 

Dennis Doll, president and CEO of Middlesex Water Company, says, “Personal care products and pharmaceuticals are issues. Some of the debate here, is: Where do you treat for it? Do you do it at the water treatment plant, or at the wastewater treatment plant? There’s that debate, and it largely always comes down to who pays, which is no small challenge, either.” 

There are a limited number of  contaminants currently regulated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Doll says, “There are people looking to ensure that the industry and the federal government are testing for more contaminants … they call them ‘contaminants of emerging concern’. There will likely be tighter regulation [in the future], in a number of areas.” 

Water quality experts are faced with complex equations overall, since when they address one water quality component, it can potentially have adverse effects on a different water quality component. Doll speaks generally about water quality, stressing: “The chemistry associated with water treatment can be fairly complex, and it is really a balance: You solve one problem, and you create another.” 

While Middlesex Water was not and is not involved with Newark’s infamous lead-water issues, Newark’s crisis is arguably an industry case in point: While the water mains beneath Newark’s roadways did not contain lead, the service lines (smaller underground pipes extending from roads directly to customers’ homes) contained lead that had been kept stable for many years and was not dangerously affecting residents. 

The water treatment plant that served Newark was, in effect, reportedly trying to create increasingly pure water by addressing disinfection byproduct concerns, but allegedly that process created an aggressive water pH. This, in turn, caused the smaller lead service lines to leach. The result was a massive and expensive need to replace lead service lines in the city. 

A Complex Industry 

Painting an industry view, Middlesex Water Company has not only been upgrading its physical assets for many years, but has been devoted to water quality. Doll adds, “What’s important to me is that [people not] generalize [about] the quality of the infrastructure and the quality of water [in New Jersey]. 

“Because we have so many systems across the state, it’s important to be able to evaluate them, system by system. Some are doing a phenomenally good job at treatment and distribution, and some aren’t doing as good of a job.” 

If one thing is clear, the intersection of water sources, contaminants, treatment processes, distribution assets and funding is increasingly complex. Doll explains, “When I joined the water industry more than 30 years ago, I came out of public accounting, and my friends at the firm said, ‘Why would you want to go work in the water industry? It’s like watching grass grow.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no shortage of interesting and challenging issues.” 

He concludes, “Our company and all of our peers truly believe we are not in the water business; we’re in the public health business. It is really critical to public health, economic stability and fire protection. There is a lot of work to be done.”

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