New Jersey is at a very special crossroads with respect to its response to the EPA’s National Combined Sewer Overflow Strategy (1987) and the CSO Control Policy (1994). While larger cities such as New York City and Washington DC are well underway, New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection is in the midst of issuing new permits for the 21 communities in NJ with combined sewer overflows. This is an exciting time for NJ, because despite being somewhat behind other cities in the implementation of the CSO Control Policy, it has the opportunity to utilize the lessons learned from other communities’ implementation, and to do so in a proactive, collaborative way.

NJ’s situation is fundamentally different from many other communities precisely because the new permit is happening in the context not only of much greater acceptance of ideas of integrated water resource management, watershed-based planning, green stormwater infrastructure, and multifunctional infrastructure benefits, but actually the active promotion of such ideas by regulatory bodies such as the EPA and NJ DEP. For communities such as Washington DC, whose original Consent Decree regarding its LTCP for CSOs did not include Green Infrastructure components. Instead DC was mandated to build three massive tunnels to capture the overfows to prevent raw sewage from entering the Anacostia and Potmac rivers and Rock Creek.

The Lady Bird tunnel boring machine being lowered piecewise 10 stories below ground to build “gray infrastructure” storage capacity to hold raw sewage mixed with rain to prevent it from overflowing into the Anacostia River in Washington DC. Although this engineering feat will solve the problem of combined sewer overflows by 99% into the Anacostia, it is completely hidden from the public’s experience. Green infrastructure has been shown to be just as effective in a CSO LTCP, while also providing many other benefits to communities.

The tunnel currently being cut by the boring machine “Lady Bird” is more than ten stories underground, with a cuttinghead diameter of 26 feet. It was only after years of hydrologic modeling and convincing of various groups that DC Water can now replace major parts of those gray infrastructure tunnels with green infrastructure instead. Ironically, early in the process to re-open the Consent Decree requirements to change to a mixed green and gray approach, DC Water’s intentions were actually met with skepticism and resistance from environmental groups who thought that requirements were somehow being skirted. Today, its hard to imagine how environmental groups, community organizations, and regulators couldn’t be more enthusiastic about greener approaches.

And, the Philadelphia Water Department has also emphasized in the past, the dynamic between regulator and permittee when the situation is an enforcement action of a mandated consent decree is quite different from the dynamic when the situation is one of collaborative problem solving through the permitting process that NJ DEP is in the process of implementing. In the case of Philadelphia, the city proactively initiated the adoption of an Administrative Order rather than have to react to an enforcement action later on. As city planners, NJ DEP’s new permitting process is enticing because municipalities have the proactive stance to create truly place-making solutions. The ball is in their court to identify and leverage partners and stakeholders to come up with holistic, unique solutions, not only to resolve the issue of combined sewer overflows, but to revive New Jersey’s urban centers.

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