Shared Investment in Urban Water Systems Will Lead to Clean Rivers and Stronger, More Vibrant Communities

Chris Daggett
President and CEO
Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

Margaret Waldock Environment Program Director
The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

Stormwater can be our savior if we view New Jersey’s water infrastructure crisis as an opportunity to create the kinds of communities we want to live in — healthy, resilient, walkable places with tree-lined streets, green buildings, clean rivers and vibrant waterfronts.

Twenty-one urban communities in New Jersey are facing a daunting challenge — a need to upgrade century-old, combined sewer systems, where sewer and stormwater lines are connected. When it rains, sometimes as little as one-half inch, the sewage treatment plants reach capacity, causing polluted water to bypass treatment plants, flow directly into waterways and, in the worst cases, flood neighborhood streets. The result is a risk to public health, urban waters, and the prospect of stymied economic investment and revitalization. We need to act, but these communities cannot shoulder this burden alone while they are juggling many other equally urgent issues, such as creating jobs, reducing crime and strengthening public education.

Federal and state regulations require that cities must control these combined sewer overflows. By year’s end, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection will issue final permits for the cities with these systems, requiring development and implementation of long-term control plans. This permit process cannot be avoided, but it can be leveraged to maximize the return on this sizeable investment by employing innovative, collaborative, resilient and green solutions tested in other similarly challenged communities across the country, such as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati.

As baby boomers, millennials and corporations big and small move from sprawling suburbs to historic urban centers like Jersey City and transit-centric villages like Morristown, the population shift presents a tremendous opportunity to think and build differently while directing new resources and attention to fixing this long-standing problem. We need to foster stronger partnerships between the public and private sectors to make this overdue investment and infuse green projects into our cities as we plan for major infrastructure upgrades.

The philanthropic community can play an important role in addressing this issue, and we have begun to do so. We are making grants to nonprofit organizations that are working to revitalize parks and plant rain gardens and street trees in their communities, and supporting research and stakeholder convenings to develop a statewide action plan to address the problem. Our challenge and goal is to join forces to develop efficient and cost-effective solutions to the problem that build on work already in progress. Only by addressing this issue and investing in our infrastructure together can we move forward to improve water quality, and build sustainable and resilient communities, and a strong economy.

The impacts of water resource scarcity and climate change are being shouldered by communities, families and businesses across our country. The time to modernize our water resource management decision-making is now, because the longer we wait, the greater the challenges will be.

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