The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection launched an unusual public relations offensive Thursday, practically begging county and local officials to apply for a portion of the $1 billion the state is expected to receive from the federal government to modernize the water system.
DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said the state has an estimated $30 billion in water infrastructure needs, from replacing lead plumbing to building new wastewater treatment plants to installing modern filtration systems that can remove PFAS, a so-called perennial chemical, which has contaminated drinking water and is linked to health issues.
Under the federal infrastructure bill signed into law by President Joe Biden last year, the state is scheduled to receive what officials call “once in a generation” over five years to upgrade or build water systems. This money is in addition to about $90 million already received by the state.
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But officials say they’ve struggled in the past to get communities to take advantage of grants and soft loan programs for water systems, even though they know an urgent need exists.
This year, New Jersey is set to receive $170 million from the infrastructure bill. That money, they said, could be raised into much larger amounts through other programs.
Although LaTourette said he’s not sure why officials haven’t always checked for available money, he speculated that some communities may be discouraged from accepting interest-free loans because they fear the debt, they may not understand the bureaucracy, they have environmental injustice in the past, they have bad credit, or they don’t have the technical means to tackle a large project.
David Zimmer, executive director of the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Bank, says few, if any, local government officials attend meetings held by the bank, which provides low-cost financing to design, build and implement water quality projects.
But last year’s Tropical Storm Ida shows that municipalities and local water agencies must address the problems exacerbated by climate change, LaTourette said. During the Ida flood, combined sewage systems overflowed, spilling raw sewage into streets and basements. Combined sewage systems are typically older systems that collect stormwater and sewage in the same pipes and transport the mixture to treatment plants, which often cannot handle the volume. This raw sewage then overflows into bodies of water.
» READ MORE: Climate change is putting a strain on Philly’s 19th-century sewage system. Ida was a “wake-up call”.
“And so we have to think big and think about who doesn’t show up at the table,” LaTourette said. “And we will help you with that. But… you have to come to the table. If you’re sick of the flooding in your community, sit down at the table. If you’re concerned about your children’s exposure to lead, come to the table. If you’re concerned about synthetic chemicals like PFAS, sit down at the table.”
LaTourette said officials plan to speak with stakeholders to address community and utility needs. Officials hope that a water infrastructure investment plan will be drafted by April on how the $1 billion will be spent over the next five years.
Officials also say the money will create jobs by spurring major construction projects.
They are launching a series of fact-finding meetings for local officials to share their water infrastructure needs so they can be prioritized. Topics include financing packages, loan forgiveness, lead, PFAS, climate change and sea level rise.
Two meetings are scheduled for January 24: one for elected local officials, including mayors and county officials; and one for other potential applicants, professional organizations and other agencies. A third is scheduled for January 27 for environmental justice advocates, non-governmental organizations and the general public.
LaTourette said it was too early to say what projects the state and local officials would fund.
US Rep. Andy Kim (D., NJ) said in a statement that he hopes to replace lead pipes and eliminate PFAS in drinking water.
“I’m very excited to see these funding opportunities coming together quickly,” said Kim, whose district spans Burlington and Ocean counties.
And US Rep. Jeff Drew (R., NJ) said the time had come for the investment in his district, which spans rural areas from South Jersey to the coast.
“My community’s way of life depends on efficient and effective water infrastructure,” said Van Drew.