How will Bayonne address its water problem?

NJ DEP solicits public feedback on major environmental infrastructure project

Stormwater swirls down a sewer grate after a downpour.
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Stormwater swirls down a sewer grate after a downpour.

Bayonne, along with 25 other municipalities and sewer utilities across the state, has submitted Evaluation of Alternatives reports to the NJ Department of Environmental Protection this month. The reports are meant to evaluate ways to mitigate the negative consequences of a combined sewer system before the city submits its long-term plan in June of 2020.

During periods of precipitation, the volume of water entering the sewer system exceeds the capacity of the combined sewer system, discharging human and industrial waste, toxic materials, and debris into surrounding estuaries through the city’s 30 combined sewage overflows (CSO) and onto city streets through storm drains.

Water that doesn’t overflow goes to a pumping station on Oak Street and then to the Passaic Valley Sewage Commission water treatment plant in the Ironbound section of Newark.

The problem will likely require hundreds of millions of dollars of funding over the course of 20 years, the largest infrastructure investment in Bayonne’s modern history. The massive infrastructure project will require a combination of strategies.

The goal is to reduce CSO events by 85 percent. To achieve this, the city must expand capacity in the sewer system to hold water, improve ways to disinfect the water so that it can be safely discharged into estuaries, and prevent water from draining into the sewer system to begin with.

The NJDEP is soliciting public feedback as part of its review of the reports. Comments can be submitted at the NJ DEP website.

Green versus gray

A variety of solutions will be required to solve the problem. Debate centers around what combination of strategies to implement and to what extent. Many community members advocate for more than ten percent of the solution to involve green infrastructure. City officials oppose large-scale green infrastructure implementation because they say it is less cost-effective than gray infrastructure.

Green infrastructure advocates, on the other hand, are pushing for more than 10 percent of the total solution to include green infrastructure, not only for its effectiveness at reducing CSO events, but for its ancillary community benefits. Green infrastructure, which includes bioswales, green roofs, rain gardens, and trees, is designed to enhance and restore the natural filtering of water through the ground and vegetation.

Proponents cite long-term community benefits like open green space, more trees and shade, improved mental health and safety, and rising property values. Opponents, however, cite installation and maintenance costs and limited places to install green infrastructure without disrupting amenities like parking.

Solutions proposed by the Bayonne Municipal Utility Authority and the engineers tasked with compiling the report include mostly “gray” infrastructure, which includes underground storage tanks and pipes to hold water and prevent it from getting into the sewer system. Meanwhile, water conservation and green infrastructure are listed as “secondary alternatives” in the report.

The funding debate

The report outlines alternatives to its system but doesn’t go much into the overall cost and financing of such projects. The final long-term control plan, however, will.

There is a chart of what the project would cost, which will likely be in the hundreds of millions of dollars over a 20-year period, depending on what combination of solutions the city implements.

To fund such a major project, the city has many financial mechanisms at its disposal. They include outside funding such as federal grants and bonds administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and financing from the NJ Infrastructure Bank, which administers low and no-interest bonds.

Without massive infrastructure funding from the federal government in the coming years, the projects will be funded primarily from local tax revenue. The state legislature passed a law earlier this year that empowers municipalities to raise money by taxing property owners with impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, which divert water away from the ground and into the sewers. The rest of the funding will come from revenue generated from property tax revenue.

For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Rory Pasquariello can be reached at roryp@hudsonreporter.com.