The “bomb cyclone” that brought freezing arctic air into North America for the past week has disrupted life across the country. In Florida, iguanas fell from trees due to body temperatures falling too low, Niagara Falls has become a giant icicle, and more than a dozen deaths have been attributed to the deep freeze. Areas in the Northeast with aging infrastructure did not fare well. Bayonne experienced three water main breaks and parking mayhem.
“This is extreme cold weather,” said Eduardo Ferrante, coordinator of the Bayonne Office of Emergency Management. Schools were closed on Thursday and Friday after the city saw more than six inches of snow and wind chills of minus 10, conditions that cause more than school closings and parking issues.
Multiple water main breaks since the cold weather started two weeks ago left many residents without running water for periods of time.
“The water main breaks have been a combination of Suez mains and private mains,” said Ferrante. “When you have this length of time in sub-zero temperatures, it’s a major problem for our infrastructure. And it’s definitely not just Bayonne. It’s all over the area.”
Serious water main breaks at JFK Airport caused flooding that cancelled flights. Various NJ municipalities reported multiple water main breaks over the same period of time.
“People need to be very aware that they are at risk of their pipes freezing,” said Ferrante. “A little cold water running in a faucet will help prevent a very expensive problem for them.”
“When you have this length of time in sub-zero temperatures, it’s a major problem for our infrastructure.” – Eduardo Ferrante
While the legislature cannot prevent freezing weather, it may be on course to make significant improvements under the Murphy administration. The Joint Legislative Task Force on Drinking Water Infrastructure recommended on Jan. 8 that the state borrow $400 billion to upgrade aging water infrastructure.
That investment is a small fraction of that $40 billion the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates will be required to upgrade infrastructure in the state over the next 20 years. But improvements can go a long way. According to a Jan. 2017 National Resources Defense Council report, NJ loses an estimated 130 million gallons of treated, potable water every day due to cracked water mains and leaks.
Storm and wastewater management are key issues in Bayonne, which addressed the need in its 2000 Master Plan under the subhead, “Major Issues.” The city’s plan has been essentially to work around, as best it can, an outdated combined sewage overflow system that is far too costly to replace.
Winter months are usually easier on the sewage systems because there tends to be less precipitation, which can cause overflows into natural water sources and foul odors in the streets.
Aging water infrastructure in Hudson County is well documented. Hoboken, in particular, is known for its wooden sewers and water main breaks that swallow entire SUVs. Washington Streets, its main thoroughfare, has been torn up for more than a year as the city attacks the problem. Bayonne, which constructed much of its water infrastructure in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is not much better. A shallow and vast network of underground piping is an unfortunate legacy from its industrial days.
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.