Local officials are on the front line of government. Mayors and members of municipal councils and committees are the people the public turns to first to help solve problems. We can tackle many issues at the local level with creativity and commitment, but some challenges we face require broad systemic action from our partners at all levels of government. Water infrastructure is one such issue.
I recently had the opportunity to testify in front of the Senate Budget Committee about water infrastructure needs, both in Ridgefield Park and statewide. In Ridgefield Park, we have been battling the impact of deteriorating combined sewer systems. Combined sewers, ironically, were an innovative solution in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s for sewage removal. They carry both stormwater and sewage. Today, these systems are outdated and pose a risk to public health, property and other public infrastructure. When we get too much rain, these systems back up into streets, homes and businesses.
I have served on several committees that were tasked with tackling the combined sewer overflow issue, and we’ve made progress. But, to really solve the problem we need a bold commitment from the State of New Jersey to expand water infrastructure funding. In Ridgefield Park alone, the pre-Covid cost estimate to fix our combined sewer system was $14 million. In nearby Hackensack, it was $18 million and in Fort Lee it was $127 million. The actual investment required will likely be much greater. The cost of these necessary upgrades and repairs will fall squarely on the shoulders of ratepayers and local taxpayers if more action isn’t taken.
Statewide, and in Bergen County, water infrastructure problems extend beyond combined sewer systems. Bergen communities like Franklin Lakes, Ho-Ho-Kus, Mahwah, Oakland, Park Ridge, Ridgewood, Upper Saddle River and Warwick have to contend with forever chemicals, or PFAs. They are called forever chemicals because once ingested, they stay in our bodies forever. Too many communities across New Jersey have deteriorating stormwater systems and lead service lines. The bottom line is, communities are facing enormous and unprecedented expenses.
We can’t go it alone. I am grateful to my Senator and Senate Budget and Appropriations Chair Paul Sarlo for the opportunity to have been able to testify. I am also grateful for the steps he has taken along with my members of the Assembly and Governor Murphy to address water infrastructure issues. But, more is needed. Statewide, we are facing an estimated $6 billion clean water funding gap over the next five years. In his testimony, DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette provided his assessment of New Jersey’s total need–$30 billion.
This year, Governor Murphy and the New Jersey State Legislature have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a legacy-defining investment in clean water, affordability, health and good jobs using $1.2 billion out of the $3 billion in remaining American Rescue Plan funds. Expanded funding would provide for capital upgrades as well as capacity-building at the local level to help municipalities collaboratively identify, plan and execute projects. Clean water is absolutely essential and must be a top priority.
I urge Governor Murphy and the State Legislature to support local government by expanding investment in water infrastructure today.
Mark Olson is a Village of Ridgefield Park Commissioner