A new state law dubbed the Water Quality Accountability Act has taken effect, requiring water system operators in New Jersey to upgrade, modernize and maintain their drinking water systems.

“We have really bad water infrastructure throughout New Jersey. It’s very old, decrepit, it’s falling apart and what makes it particularly bad is that people don’t see it,” said Peter Kasabach, the executive director of New Jersey Future, a nonprofit group that advocates for infrastructure spending and curtailing sprawling development.

“They don’t see it until pipes burst or roads are closed or you get a boil water notice.”

He explained all water utility systems need to continually invest money in maintenance but “there are a lot of these systems around the state of New Jersey where that regular maintenance and routine maintenance was not happening.”

So how big of a problem is this?

According to Kasabach, “there’s anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of the treated water leaking out of the pipes before it gets to its final destination, so that’s a huge inefficiency.”

The group Jersey Water Works estimates small water companies are losing a combined 130 million gallons of treated drinking water a day.

Kasabach explained in New Jersey there are hundreds of small water utilities scattered across the state, and many of them haven’t invested properly in maintaining their systems.

“They are generally municipally run, so there’s political pressure not to raise rates, even if the smart thing to do is invest regularly and raise rates regularly. So they’re between a rock and a hard place and oftentimes the politics will win out,” he said.

He pointed out this new law requires all water utilities to be able to demonstrate they’re taking care of their systems and that they’re minimizing water loss through leaks.

Kasabach said fixing this problem will cost billions of dollars. This will almost certainly mean higher water rates for as many as 5 million New Jersey residents, but it’s important to remember “it’s cheaper if we invest little by little each year than if we have to wait until the system fails and everything breaks.”

He says the problem must be addressed starting now because we are starting to see “more and more manifestations of our bad systems. We’re seeing pipes breaking, we’re seeing pipes breaking creating sinkholes, we’re having all sorts of problems.”

“These systems are now well beyond their useful life, we’re going to start seeing damages more often — and fixing those damages costs a lot more than investing in the maintenance of them. It’s time to start doing this now before we have a complete system breakdown.”

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