The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection went on an unusual public relations offensive Thursday, virtually begging county and local officials to apply for a piece of the $1 billion the state is expected to receive from the federal government for water system upgrades.
DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette said the state has an estimated $30 billion in water infrastructure needs, from replacing lead pipes to building new sewage treatment plants to installing modern filtration systems that can remove PFAS, a so-called forever chemical that 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 set to receive what officials call “a once in a generation” $1 billion over five years to upgrade or build new water systems. That money comes on top of about $90 million the state already receives.
But officials say they have had trouble in the past getting communities to take advantage of grant and low-interest loan programs for water systems, even though they know there is a dire need.
This year, New Jersey is set to receive $170 million from the infrastructure bill. That money, they said, can be leveraged into much higher amounts through other programs.
Although LaTourette said he is not sure why officials haven’t always sought out available money, he speculated some communities might be daunted by accepting zero interest loans because they fear the debt, they might not understand the bureaucracy, they have experienced past environmental injustice, they have poor credit, or they don’t have the technical wherewithal to tackle a big 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 for the design, construction, and implementation of water quality projects.
But last year’s Tropical Storm Ida shows that municipalities and local water departments need to start facing issues exacerbated by climate change, LaTourette said. During Ida’s flooding, combined sewer systems overflowed, spilling raw sewage into streets and basements. Combined sewer systems are usually older systems that collect storm water and sewage into the same pipes, carrying the mixture to water treatment plants that often can’t handle the volume. That raw sewage then overflows into waterways.
“And that’s why we have to think big and think about who’s not showing up at the table,” said LaTourette. “And we’re gonna help you through it. But … you’ve got to get to the table. If you’re tired of the flooding in your community, get to the table. If you’re worried about your kids being exposed to lead, get to get to the table. If you’re worrying about synthetic chemicals like PFAS, get to the table.”
LaTourette said officials plan to speak to stakeholders to address communities’ and utilities’ needs. Officials hope to draft a Water Infrastructure Investment Plan by April on how to spend the $1 billion over the next five years.
Officials also say the money will create jobs by spurring large-scale construction projects.
They are launching a series of informational meetings for local officials to share their water infrastructure needs so they can be prioritized. Subjects include funding packages, loan forgiveness, lead, PFAS, climate change, and sea-level rise.
Two meetings are set for Jan. 24: one for local elected officials, including mayors and county officials; and one for other potential applicants, professional organizations, and other agencies. A third is set for Jan. 27 for environmental justice advocates, nongovernmental organizations, and the general public.
LaTourette said it is too early to say what projects the state and local officials would fund.
Rep. Andy Kim (D., N.J.) said in a statement that he hopes to see lead-pipe replacement and the elimination of PFAS in drinking water.
“I’m thrilled to see these funding opportunities coming together quickly,” said Kim, whose district spans Burlington and Ocean Counties.
And Rep Jeff Van Drew (R., N.J.) said the time has come for the investment in his district, which includes rural areas of South Jersey through to the Shore.
“My community’s way of life depends on efficient and effective water infrastructure,” Van Drew said.