Simply Compliance, or Opportunity?

Peter Kasabach, Executive Director, New Jersey Future

Chris Sturm, Senior Director of State Policy, New Jersey Future

New Jersey’s oldest cities face a generational challenge that could dramatically dictate how water and water infrastructure is dealt with throughout the state. By the end of 2014, 21 of New Jersey’s cities will receive a final permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), requiring a detailed plan for upgrading their combined sewer systems to resolve raw sewage overflows. Implementation will be a massive undertaking, costing between $2 billion and $9 billion and taking approximately two decades to complete. Cities ignore this mandate at their peril, risking lawsuits demanding compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.

But this looming requirement offers much more than an expensive obligation. New Jersey cities can use different approaches tested across the country to turn Clean Water Act compliance into a successful path to economic revitalization. New “green infrastructure” techniques like rain gardens, planted strips and street trees absorb stormwater where it falls, thus simultaneously upgrading urban environments with world-class parks and greenery, reducing localized flooding, increasing the value of nearby properties, and creating local jobs. Rebuilt “gray infrastructure” – sewer lines, pumps and treatment plants – can use innovative technologies to reduce energy consumption and enhance resilience to flooding and climate change. Done right, both gray and green infrastructure offer multiple benefits while minimizing the costs of these necessary upgrades.

Critical to success will be partnerships among the 21 cities, which include New Jersey’s largest, Newark; its poorest, Camden; its wealthiest and fastest growing urban areas, Hoboken and Jersey City; and many in between. What if, rather than each city sewer department or utility using limited staff resources to adopt and implement its own plan, these entities banded together? Could they expand their purchasing power, aggregate staff expertise and spread financial risk? Could they learn from each other’s successes through a support network? Could they advocate jointly for the kinds of funding tools – stormwater utilities, state pooling of municipal bonds and affordability mechanisms – that cities in other states have?

New Jersey Future is energized by the powerful partners – including leaders from city, state and federal government; government- and investor-owned water utilities; and economic and community development, environment, business, finance and technology organizations – who have helped us craft an Agenda for Change for New Jersey’s urban water infrastructure. Working together, we can expand the silver lining in the Clean Water Act permit requirements to foster strong cities that are bright “green,” both environmentally and economically, all while setting a new course for the entire state’s water infrastructure future.

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