When it became law, the Water Quality Accountability Act was intended to promote accountability among public water systems, and private water companies with more than 500 service connections.
Government sought to, at once, inventory and catalog the condition of the state’s water infrastructure, through the submission of asset management plans by public and private water companies to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the state’s environmental regulators.
Some in the regulated community saw it as a ploy to create regulatory jeopardy for underperforming water systems, who were obligated to disclose the condition of their substandard infrastructure conditions, but who also didn’t have access to sufficient funds to upgrade their systems, and to thereby justify takeover by large private water companies.
Others saw the law as a well-intentioned paper tiger, where the environmental regulators, overworked and underpaid to begin with, had no obligation to adopt rules that would clarify and flesh out the requirements for the submission and review of asset management plans, and where the submitted plans had little or no precise meaning for regulators who intended to compel repairs and upgrades.
Whatever the objections to the new law, and its good intentions, the law lacked regulatory teeth to compel public and private water companies to take action, and quickly, to upgrade their systems.
The New Jersey Legislature took a closer look at the law in 2019, with public hearings prompted in part by the failings of older industrial cities with lead pipes as the main conduit for carrying safe drinking water. Where those lead pipes began to degrade to the point where enhanced water treatment was no longer effective, replacement of those lead lines was the only alternative, but at an enormous cost.
The work of a legislative task force in 2019 produced recently-introduced amendments to the WQAA, and to related laws, to increase the law’s effectiveness, and to spur effective and prompt action to upgrade water infrastructure throughout the state.
On January 27, 2020, a bill sponsored by Sen. Troy Singleton, tightens existing requirements for public and private water companies, to develop comprehensive asset management plans that contain water main renewal programs that must be designed to achieve a 150-year or shorter replacement cycle. Water companies must also submit, within one year from the effective date of the amended law, a more detailed report, with detailed information that exceeds what had been required for asset management plans. Where the original WQAA was criticized as a half-hearted regulatory effort on the issue, the Legislature has stepped up the intent and meaning of the law.
Similarly, where DEP claimed confusion over its own responsibilities under the law, the amendments eliminate that uncertainty, particularly where DEP is now obligated to adopt rules that implement the WQAA, and to thereby provide needed guidance to water purveyors. Likewise, DEP must now conduct an assessment, every three years, of the data that is submitted to the agency by water conveyors through their enhanced asset management plans. Critically, DEP’s assessment must also include an analysis of the total estimated cost of infrastructure improvements to water purveyors, Statewide, that will be required to be installed over the following ten years. DEP must also submit a report to the Governor and to the Legislature on the results of its assessment.
So where can the public and the regulatory community find hope with the new amendments?
First, of course, with their legislative colleagues in the Assembly and in the Senate, who will find the courage to adopt the amendments as law, and equally with the Governor, to approve that new law.
Next, with the requirement for DEP to estimate the cost of needed infrastructure upgrades, and to do so on a Statewide basis, the public will finally have a comprehensive resource that will bring the cost issue into clear focus. Where taxpayers currently lack information on the condition of their town’s water infrastructure, they will have a current and ready reference to hold their local governments accountable.
And where the cost of needed upgrades is typically enormous and well beyond the means of any one town, State government will have more current and thorough data to prove the need for prioritizing spending decisions.
And taxpayers can begin to bring pressure to State elected and appointed officials to provide the means, through grants and loans from dedicated funding sources, for providing adequate infrastructure to deliver the most basic of natural resources; safe drinking water.