It took a crisis in Flint, Mich., to get New Jersey officials to focus on water safety at home. Since then, conversations among water engineers, utility managers, and local officials about water has literally gone deeper — underground, in fact — to water infrastructure and the miles of pipes that carry billions of gallons of water to homes across the Garden State each year.
Those pipes are old, says Anthony Attanasio, who represents NJ contractors who fix pipes when there is a watermain break. He says when contractors dig into the ground, they often find wooden or terra cotta pipes, "things you'd never think [would] be in existence in the year 2016."
In some cases, Attanasio said, "dirt has actually compacted around [the pipes] and it’s actually the dirt that’s keeping the pipes together."
It's a problem because frail and crumbling pipes cause watermain breaks that are costly to fix and disruptive to traffic. Leakage from these pipes can result in a 30 percent loss of treated drinking water.
Another issue? In older communities across New Jersey, many of them low-income, sewage flows into waterways during rainstorms, because storm water and sewer pipes are combined.
Those are among many issues nagging at water experts across the region who attended Friday's Jersey Water Works conference in Newark. Jersey Water Works is a coalition with a goal of making water clean and affordable for users, while creating a structurally-sound water system. The coalition estimates that achieving these goals will cost $40 billion.
Members of the group say raising rates isn't the solution, because many low-income communities cannot afford to pay more. Identifying options to fund repairs is among the group's priorities.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of legislators in Trenton have formed a task force to study the state's water infrastructure.