On Jan 8th, I attended a one-day workshop organized by the nonprofit NJ Future, the NJ DEP and the US EPA in Newark, NJ called “Reinvesting in Urban Water Infrastructure through Combined Sewer Overflow Long Term Control Plans.” Contrary to how technical and engineering-heavy as the name of the workshop might seem to imply, the experience highlighted a major trend in infrastructure planning, function, and operation and management: decentralization. Gone are the days of the heroic engineer-city planners, yielding the Promethean control of nature, and as a result, over other people. This workshop was a representative of the parties that need to be involved in the research, reinvestment, and implementation of water infrastructure upgrades all over the United States.
Following the workshop, NJ Future published their research and policy analysis reports available here, on the state of water infrastructure (specifically Combined Sewer Systems) in NJ. In addition to the policy analysis in the reports by NJ Future, funding was provided by foundations such as the Geraldine R Dodge Foundation and the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, research support was provided by private engineering consultants Hatch Mott MacDonald and HDM, and Rutgers University. The workshop featured the work of community organizations and education and outreach activities as being as critical as hydrological modeling and technical report writing in this new era of infrastructure planning.
There are many reasons why community buy-in is so important. Firstly, urban areas are cash-strapped and are burdened with 100-year old infrastructure systems in great need of upgrading. Upgrading requires capital, which in the case of stormwater management, has not typically been treated as a utility fee, as water supply and wastewater treatment have. Funding for upgrades to stormwater management systems therefore often have to compete with other municipal expenditures as part of the general fund, or face the political unpopularity of instituting stormwater user-based fees. Secondly, if cities choose to adopt source-control based strategies, such as green infrastructure, they must also face the challenge of aggregating land outside of the public right of way to build such facilities. Thirdly, especially in the case of communities with combined sewer systems, water conservation behavior can help reduce sewage loads. Education programs can be a cost-effective way to improve existing system capacity. In both the cases of increased user fees and community land use and education, cities must have community buy-in to proceed, or else risk significant pushback or low adoption rates.
Water infrastructure planning can no longer be considered purely engineering or financial technical exercises. Because of the dual state-federal regulatory environments, technical expertise and experience in complex regulatory environments must be shared between municipalities, both within states and across states. Funding and technical assistance for demonstration projects or policy guidance can come from regulatory agencies, state financing authorities, universities, among many other sources. NJ Future’s workshop, website, and network serve as the perfect planning platform for all these sources to come together to communicate, and this platform is distinctly City and Regional Planning flavored. It is interdisciplinary yet adopts a normative stance of what ought to be. As its basis it takes the traditions of collaboration and advocacy borne out of the mistakes of top-down command and control planning of city planners in the 50s and 60s. It is future-oriented and democratic. Bravo NJ Future.