We need to refocus and start to concentrate on getting the COVID-19 virus under control and rebuilding our economy. We have a lot to do and there’s not a lot of time to address the problems New Jersey faces.

What COVID-19 has made starkly clear is the massive disruption and hardship a public health crisis can have on all our lives. Children aren’t getting the consistent in-person schooling they need. Businesses have closed. We’ve lost loved ones and our hospitals are strained.

This time last year, no one would have predicted we’d be celebrating the holidays without our extended families and friends. If we had known, we could have taken greater precautions to protect ourselves and dampen the impact. Fortunately, we know full well about a public health crisis that’s coming that’s going to be just as devastating: the impact that the rapidly changing climate will have on our drinking water.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently sounded the alarm in a report about a vast array of effects that climate change is causing and anticipated changes we can expect in our everyday lives in the not-too-distant future.

The climate change reality means on average, a New Jersey homeowner will experience a severe 100-year storm at least once during the period of their 30-year mortgage. At the same time that we’ll experience chronic flooding that pollutes our waterways and damages property, our drinking water supplies will be strained by droughts.

We recently provided testimony at the New Jersey Assembly Special Committee on Infrastructure and Natural Resources on the timely topic of “Stormwater Control and Reducing Non-point Source Pollution in the State’s Waterways.” We highlighted that flooding and polluted runoff is bad news for New Jersey, and the proof can be seen in communities across the state.

Newark, Camden and 19 other municipalities experience untreated polluted stormwater and sewage overflow in homes, sidewalks, streets and waterways all too often when the volume of rainwater exceeds the capacity of local wastewater treatment plants. Hoboken is now experiencing what would have been a 50-year occasional flood every few months, and while the city has spent millions over the past decade on mitigation measures, it is estimated that it would cost Hoboken $3 billion to prevent the most severe flooding.

Lake Hopatcong and dozens of our lakes were closed to swimming and boating all summer in 2019 due to toxic algal blooms that would make people sick and have been documented to have killed dogs.

All of these disasters share the same causes: massive storms that happen with greater frequency, fewer open spaces that naturally filter pollution from runoff and antiquated stormwater infrastructure that can’t keep up.

Modernizing New Jersey’s water infrastructure requires at least $40 billion in investment over the next 20 years, with updates to our stormwater infrastructure costing over $16 billion of that amount. Those costs will largely be left to local governments to cover, as the state doesn’t have the funding, and as of now, the federal government isn’t helping.

Fortunately, there’s a popular solution to this problem being implemented in 1,800 communities in 41 states that places the responsibility to pay for the remediation of flooding squarely on the shoulders of those who contribute to it the most – and New Jersey communities can finally adopt one, too.

Made possible by the bipartisan Clean Stormwater and Flood Reduction Act signed by Governor Murphy in 2019, local governments have the ability to create stormwater utilities, much like how a water utility functions. The assessed revenue is dedicated and must be spent upgrading and maintaining infrastructure to reduce pollutants into waterways and controlling flooding. Especially during a time of significant fiscal constraints caused by COVID-19 for municipalities, stormwater utilities are the most cost-effective and equitable way to protect our cities and cherished lakes, bays, and reservoirs.

New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, with our Flood Defense New Jersey Coalition partners, is working to teach the public and local officials about the benefits of stormwater utilities, including how they keep pollution out of our waterways and how to reduce flooding. We can save communities much-needed revenue in the long run.