April 26, 2017

When the Flint Water Crisis broke in April 2014, a stark reality surfaced about how water management decisions are made – often without public input, few maintenance details, and little to no information on how treatment facilities fair against state and federal compliance. Investigations into municipal practices in Flint, Michigan led to the realization that thousands of children were exposed to lead poisoning creating a public health state of emergency with unresolved implications to this day.

The Flint scandal sparked national conversations with local advocates questioning – what’s in Newark’s water? According to Newark Public Schools, a water quality test in March 2015 revealed “…at least one water sample, out of generally 10 samples taken per building with lead levels above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) in a subset of faucets at 30 NPS schools.” Approximately 590 of the 650 samples across the district showed little to no traces of lead, meaning over 90% of potable water fell within federal guidelines. District consultants shared that these results indicate a low likelihood of district water sources causing serious damage to city students.

The City of Newark has yet to conduct a full analysis of its 600 miles of distribution and transmission mains, which deliver 77 million gallons of potable water to residents, business, and academic institutions in Newark, Belleville, and four other municipalities from the 35,000 acre Newark-Pequannock Watershed. This high-quality natural resource is owned by the City of Newark. According to the New Jersey Department of Health, several factors affect how lead enters the water supply – type of plumbing materials, length of time water stands in pipes, corrosiveness of water, and grounding of electrical wires to water pipes. In other words, water infrastructure is a major factor that determines the quality of water at point of use.

Drinking water is only one side of the water conversation. Residents in the South and East wards of Newark know all-too-well how rain and snowmelt affect quality of life. Residents of these areas experience intense flooding every rain event. In a city with over 70% impervious surface cover – asphalt, rooftops, and concrete, water that is not absorbed floods city streets and flows into local waterways through storm drains, but first, this “runoff” collects sediment, oil, chemicals, animal waste and other pollutants. On days of intense rain, household waste-water (sewerage) that exceeds the capacity the Wastewater Treatment Plan is able to process also empties into the Newark Bay waterway. Runoff plus sewerage is called combined sewer overflow (CSO).  Green infrastructure provides several opportunities for residents, developers, and the municipality to take part in minimizing the amount of runoff that enters waterways. Green rooftops, community gardens, landscaping with rain gardens and bioswales, tree cover, rain barrels and cisterns, and permeable pavement relieve pressure on the CSO system.

Newark’s water and sewer infrastructure is old.  A sustainable and dedicated funding source to upgrade both systems is imperative and adoption of green infrastructure practices must be a call to action at every level of urban living. Can we make these changes? How does Newark define progress? Which inadequacy takes priority? What do we want to see addressed by 2020? 2050? Who is willing to bring the preferable future to bear?

The “Newark Unleaded” track of the 3rd Leadership Newark Public Policy Summit will explore these questions by reviewing a snapshot of the current drinking and waste water system, engaging in dialogue on improvement priorities and efforts in action, and establishing perspective points from members of the community on the cost-burden to sustainably address water in Newark. To be part of the conversation, reserve your seat to #LNSummit2017 by visiting http://bit.ly/LeadNewarkSummit for more information and to register as an attendee. Don’t forget to connect with Leadership Newark on Facebook and follow @LeadershipNwk on Twitter & Instagram.