Trenton — New Jersey is facing a massive and growing financial gap in its ability to protect water supplies and infrastructure but has no plan to pay for needed improvements or prevent coming water emergencies, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). A water infrastructure deficit pegged at nearly $13 billion several years ago has now ballooned by impacts and implications of Super-Storm Sandy, sea level rise and expected extreme weather events.
An “Asset Management” Guidance document quietly posted earlier this month on the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) website is the latest placeholder for the long overdue Update of the State Water Supply Management Plan. In this Guidance, the state acknowledges that in order to safeguard drinking water supplies it must invest heavily in upgrading sewage treatment plants, controlling sewer overflows, installing backup generators and shielding other waterworks. Yet, it has no plan for doing so:
- The Statewide Water Supply Management Plan has not been updated in nearly 20 years and is based upon hydrological data from the 1980’s;
- The state admits its legal duty to “require drinking water and wastewater utilities to demonstrate that they have adequate facilities, and equipment, and that they regularly perform operation and maintenance to meet the conditions in their permits,” according to the Guidance document but has no timetable for enforcing these requirements; and
- Governor Chris Christie does not want to discuss how to pay for these heavy investments, given the tough choice of impinging on private water company profits or raising customers’ utility rates.
“Our water infrastructure deficit is a yawning fiscal sinkhole which the Christie administration wants to treat like it is merely a decorative koi pond,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former long-time DEP analyst. “The post-Sandy factors now in play make our already huge water infrastructure needs both more expensive and urgent – they will not go away.”
The state’s failure to enforce “resilience” and “asset management” requirements in DEP permits is not merely academic – it could jeopardize federal Clean Water Act funding tied to these same requirements.
Today, PEER wrote to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Judith Enck to inquire when resilience and asset management requirements for water infrastructure would be invoked.
The state’s continuing malaise was underlined in the April 3rd transmittal email from DEP’s Water Supply Modeling & Planning chief, Jeffrey Hoffman, on the release of its Asset Management Guidance:
“I checked and am told that it is DEP’s goal to eventually incorporate these guidelines into regulations. DEP is open to suggestions on how to improve the guidelines in order to create more effective regulations. I am not aware of any formal review process or meetings but comments are welcomed.”
“Unfortunately, our water infrastructure deficit is compounded by a leadership deficit,” added Wolfe. Pointing out that since the notoriously anti-regulatory Gov. Christie has no schedule for converting these thorny and costly voluntary standards into mandatory regulations, it is likely the problem will be left to his successor. “Ensuring healthful water supplies for New Jersey should not be just another political can kicked down the road.”
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