Municipal Leaders Claim Public Engagement is Largest Asset to Lead Replacement Efforts

REPOST of New Jersey Future Blog:

June 24th, 2024 by Andrea Jovie Sapal and Deandrah Cameron

“We collectively work towards a future where every resident in New Jersey has access to clean, safe, and lead-free drinking water by fostering collaboration and sharing knowledge through innovation,” declared Richard Calbi, Director of Ridgewood Water, as he opened the lead service line replacement session at the 2024 Planning and Redevelopment Conference. This session focused on a critical environmental justice issue that demands our urgent attention—the presence of lead in drinking water in New Jersey.

Lead service lines (LSLs) account for 75% of all lead in drinking water exposure and are particularly harmful to formula-fed infants and children under six. New Jersey leads the way in LSL replacement with one of the strongest mandates across the country. In 2023 NJ was designated by the Biden Administration as one of four states participating in the US Environmental Protection Agency’s LSL Replacement Accelerator program, in part for NJ’s aggressive approach to service line replacement and emphasis on planning and municipal coordination. Last month, the EPA announced that NJ will receive $123 million in federal funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. The cost estimate for LSL replacement in NJ is roughly $3 billion.

Although funding is a major issue, engaging customers proves to be the most difficult hurdle. Moderator Richard Calbi stated, “The bulk of the financial burden will fall on water systems, resulting in increased water rates for consumers.” Consumers, i.e. regular households and businesses that pay for water, are the biggest stakeholders and face the burden of paying for their lead lines as water systems design replacement programs. While some programs offer free replacement, most systems will charge a cost. According to one report, a single LSL replacement could cost on average $6000 with high costs over $9,000—accounting for the cost of living differences, unique building or pavement materials, paving requirements, and unique permit fees. Speakers Kouao-eric Ekoue, Superintendent, City of New Brunswick Water Utility; Noemi de la Puente, Principal Engineer, Trenton Water Works; and Stephen Marks, Town Administrator, Town of Kearny shared their expertise on the state and federal partnerships, cost reduction strategies, and community engagement at the “Leading the Way: Cost-Saving Solutions for Coordinating Lead Service Line Replacement with Municipal Projects and Processes” session.

Featured speakers Kouao-eric Ekoue of New Brunswick Water Utility and Noemi de la Puente of Trenton Water Works (TWW) represent two of NJ’s accelerator cities (more below). State support for local assistance is critical for advancing LSL replacement projects. In conjunction with the federal LSL Replacement Accelerator program, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) launched NJ-TAP, an initiative providing enhanced technical assistance for disadvantaged communities to provide safe and reliable drinking water to residents. New Brunswick Water Utility leverages both federal and state programs to assist in changing ordinances, accessing funds through the SRF program and bonds, integrating data validation tools, and self-testing and electronic identification surveys as part of community outreach. On the topic of effective strategies to gain community support, Ekoue stated that his administration is fully involved in the process, emphasizing the importance of municipal engagement early on since without that buy-in, the projects are not going to go anywhere fast.

New Jersey’s ten federal LSL Replacement Accelerator cities include:

  • Blackwood
  • Camden
  • Clementon
  • East Newark
  • Harrison
  • Keansburg
  • Keyport
  • New Brunswick
  • Trenton
  • Ventnor City

LSL replacement can be challenging for water systems that serve multiple municipalities where program planning looks different for each locality. This type of coordination and cross-collaboration requires ingenuity; moderator Rich Calbi noted, ”We must explore innovative strategies and best practices to help municipalities navigate these challenges effectively and alleviate the burdens placed on residents as we work toward compliance with this vital mandate”. The City of Trenton serves five municipalities: Trenton, Ewing, Hamilton, Lawrence, and Hopewell, each requiring a unique approach.

Trenton Water Works’ engineer Noemi de la Puente discussed challenges and potential solutions around the Three Ps: Paving, Policing, and Permitting. Each municipality has different paving jurisdictions, and without coordination, replacements could be unnecessarily costly. In 2022, when de la Puente inherited the program from her predecessor, she asked, “How are we going to reshape the TWW LSL replacement program overall at a rate that isn’t expensive?”. Some potential cost-saving solutions de la Puente is looking to explore include streamlining the hyperlocal permitting process by coordinating LSL replacement plans with paving projects associated with sewer maintenance plans, main replacements, and other paving projects across jurisdictions. Since funding is a challenge, de la Puenta emphasizes that partnering with these projects would allow the leverage of Clean Water State Revolving and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds as well as funds allocated through the NJ-Moves program for paving projects. To date, de la Puente mentions needing a total of 961 permits totaling $111,476, concluding that these fees could be significantly lower with coordinating across programs.

De la Puente stressed that the strongest collaboration TWW can form is with their customers because they require access to 62,000 basements to identify lead service lines. The faster they can identify the inventory, the quicker they can complete the project. “If I [knew] my entire inventory next week, the rest of my lead service line replacement project will go much more smoothly,” concluded de la Puente.

If I [knew] my entire inventory next week, the rest of my lead service line replacement project will go much more smoothly. 

—Noemi de la Puente of Trenton Water Works

The Town of Kearny also utilized an ordinance to develop a free and mandatory program coupled with a cost reduction that includes combining the town’s resurfacing program with its LSL replacement program. However, Marks expressed that it won’t happen all at once “Given the density of digging test pits every 25 to 40 or 50 feet, it made the most sense for the town of Kearny to incorporate the lead service line replacement into the road resurfacing program. The town has a moratorium on digging up any streets that have been paved within the last five years, so we’re actually focused on all the streets that haven’t been paved on the outer end of 10 to 15 years or more.” This means depending on when the road was last paved, customers may have to wait years before the replacements are scheduled to begin. To mitigate this, the Mayor and Council also passed supplementary ordinances to reimburse all customers who coordinate their own replacement should they decide to move ahead of the town’s schedule.

“100% of the census tract for the Town of Kearny is considered overburdened by the state of New Jersey,” and about half (46%) of the town is considered low-moderate income

—Stephen Marks, Town of Kearny

Overburdened communities often struggle to pay cost shares. Town of Kearny Administrator Stephen Marks highlighted that “100% of the census tract for the Town of Kearny is considered overburdened by the state of New Jersey,” and about half (46%) of the town is considered low-moderate income. The Town of Kearny also utilized funding through the Federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) as an alternative source of funding through which a portion of the town became eligible based on census tract and income level. Marks explained that funding is a constant challenge and that municipalities are constantly deciding between the lengthy SRF process that may offer the potential for principal forgiveness or choosing to engage in the private market which could be more costly but quicker. In response to the notice of the $123 million in federal funding, Marks stated that municipalities have a decision to make as regards timeliness and meeting the 2031 goal. For example, he explained that an $8 million project is a trade-off between a “six-month” I-Bank application process with the hope of possible principal forgiveness compared to self-financing through the private market where there is no principal forgiveness but saves time. In addition to funding and coordination Marks also shared similar challenges to his fellow panelists around property access, expressing that residents typically do not want the town accessing basements or private spaces especially where they potentially have an unpermitted conversion of the basements.

The overlapping theme among the municipal leaders was that community engagement is extremely important, especially in overburdened communities where customers face a number of challenges, including cost sharing for LSL replacement. Partnerships with community groups and local leaders play a pivotal role in the successful replacement of LSLs and facilitating coordination between different jurisdictions and projects. The ultimate objective of achieving lead-free drinking water necessitates a multi sector approach that offers cost-effective solutions. Cooperation among various local, regional, and state leaders is crucial for effective implementation. The Primer for Mayors outlines ten efficient measures for LSL replacement and guides municipal officials on how to initiate this process in their community. This Jersey Water Works resource is a prime example of an initiative that supports all municipalities by providing the necessary tools and strategies for effectively replacing lead service lines. By July 10, 2024, water systems must submit their updated annual inventories and LSL progress reports. This increased transparency and communication are crucial steps towards addressing the ongoing issue of lead in drinking water.

To learn more about Jersey Water Works and the Lead in Drinking Water Taskforce, join us at the July 17th membership meeting in person. Registration is free, attendees do not need to be a member of the collaborative to attend. Register today! For more information contact Jersey Water Works.