Trenton — New Jersey is in a race against time to safeguard its supply of drinkable water due to massive amounts of sewage flowing from treatment plants disabled by Hurricane Sandy, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Drinking water intakes on several rivers are under threat from potentially inoperative sewage plants, power blackouts and failing back-up generators.
The state has declared a “water emergency” and issued boil water advisories for several communities due to loss of power at the drinking water plants. Current water use restrictions include bans on watering lawns, ornamental fountains, car and truck washing.
In a press release issued last Friday, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) confirmed that “several waste water treatment facilities in the state are off-line, resulting in the temporary runoff of effluents into certain waterways” but has not provided the number or locations of disabled plants. DEP did list the following water bodies, including major drinking water sources, as contaminated:
“New Jersey portion of the Hudson River, Passaic River, Hackensack River, Newark Bay, Kill Van Kull and Arthur Kill, Raritan Bay, Raritan River, and Sandy Hook Bay”
“With hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage pumping into rivers each day, drinking water intakes on these rivers are at risk of shutdown. If these intakes are forced to close, it is unclear how long cities, particularly in northern New Jersey, will be able to supply water to residents,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, noting that the absence of information on the status of scores of sewage treatment plants has kept the public in the dark. “Unless these sewage treatment plants are brought back on line we will move from a statewide water emergency to a water catastrophe.”
The growing danger of mega-flooding due to extreme weather is not a new issue in New Jersey. Power outages, storm surges and flooding are well known vulnerabilities to water infrastructure. For example, a 2010 report by the Delaware Estuary Partnership, entitled “Climate Change and the Delaware Estuary,” found high vulnerability of sewage treatment plants and pumping to these events:
“By ignoring these explicit warnings, we were caught with our pants down. New Jersey’s leaders would be sorely remiss if they learned no lessons from these events and we go back to business as usual,” Wolfe added, pointing out that none of the major readiness steps flowing from climate planning have been implemented. “Hurricane Sandy was an act of God but its impacts received a huge human assist.”
Examine growing national water quality problems
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability