- Associated Press - Sunday, September 27, 2015

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey has cut the amount of federal money for drinking water infrastructure that it fails to use nearly in half, but still has work to do to meet a goal of eliminating the entire backlog.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projects it will cost $384 billion over 20 years just to maintain the nation’s existing drinking water infrastructure, including $7.9 billion in New Jersey. New Jersey ranked 14th in the nation for the amount it needs, according to the 2011 survey.

Replacing pipes, treatment plants and other infrastructure as well as expanding drinking water systems to handle population growth could cost as much as $1 trillion in the U.S. Without that, industry groups warn of a future with more infrastructure failures that will disrupt service, transportation and commerce.

Despite the need, the largest federal aid program for improving the nation’s drinking water system has more than $1 billion sitting unspent in government accounts, according to a review of data by The Associated Press shows. That is largely the result of project delays, poor management by some states and structural problems.

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INFRASTRUCTURE SPENDING

In New Jersey, the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund has spent $396.1 million the last five years, but has $30 million remaining. The EPA has given states a goal of completely eliminating the backlog by next year. New Jersey cut its unspent DWSRF money from 14 percent in 2011 to 7.75 percent in 2015.

DWSRF money is being used to finance $80.1 million in projects this fiscal year, including nearly $9.5 million dedicated to projects related to Superstorm Sandy recovery.

Projects range from $58,000 for a storage tank demolition in Brielle Township to $18 million for Rahway to upgrade the filter system at its water treatment plant.

New Jersey has also set aside nearly 20 percent of that funding, about $74 million, for spending on things other than infrastructure, including salaries.

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ENDING THE BACKLOG

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency is working to solve the backlog by increasing the emphasis on helping applicants get needed permits and approvals.

“We have also made numerous process changes in which the program now lends DWSRF Program funds only to those projects that have awarded their contracts and are ready to spend the money, thereby minimizing the potential for DWSRF funds to sit around underutilized,” Hajna said in an email.

Hajna said the state uses the private New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust to leverage DWSRF money. The independent financing authority provides legal and financial assistance and matching tax-exempt bond money.

Gov. Chris Christie in August approved up to $1.94 billion in state financing for drinking and wastewater infrastructure projects financed through the NJEIT and DEP.

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PRIVATIZATION CONCERNS

As water infrastructure needs continue to grow, Christie signed a bipartisan measure this year allowing water utilities to be sold to private companies without needing voter approval.

Supporters say the change was needed to get more money for infrastructure projects, but opponents worry that the law is a giveaway for corporations that will wind up costing ratepayers.

“Nearly a dozen municipalities are exploring deals right now,” said Jim Walsh, the New Jersey director of Food & Water Watch. “This is a boon for the corporations that want to profit from the provision of water, but it comes at great expense to the public who will lose control over essential services and will be forced to pay significantly higher rates.”


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