Here’s how to end the Newark water crisis — and prevent the next one

Updated Sep 9, 2019

By Dan O’Flaherty and Alexander van Geen

New York Jets offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum loads water into a car outside Clinton Hill Early Childhood Center last month to deliver to families dealing with the lead poisoning water crisis in Newark.

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Making Newark’s tap water safe to drink won’t do much good unless people believe that the water is safe and resume drinking it and using it normally. Once the treatments to keep lead from leaching into water (known as anti-corrosives) become effective for the flows from the Pequannock (the affected reservoir), a simple announcement won’t suffice because many Newarkers no longer trust official statements about the water. The crisis won’t really be resolved until almost everyone goes back to using Newark water regularly, and no report or announcement is going to make that happen any time soon, even if the anti-corrosives are successful.

Fortunately, restoring trust in the water, once trust is warranted, can be done without a splashy PR campaign and even without restoring trust in official pronouncements. The key is water testing: free, abundant, easy-to-use, customer-friendly, and consumer-driven water testing. And setting up a program that lets Newarkers find out for themselves about their own water doesn’t require any innovative genius. Just look across the river to New York City.

In New York, getting your water tested for lead is like ordering a book from Amazon, only cheaper. You open your phone or computer, go to the water testing website or call 311, and give your name and address. You can do that any time of the day or night, from anywhere with an internet connection. Three or four days later you get a package in the mail: two lead-free bottles, fairly simple instructions (you can also watch a video online), a chain-of-custody form, and a postage-paid return address sticker. You fill the bottles according to the instructions, complete the form, place the sticker on the original box, seal it up, and drop it in the mail to the testing laboratory. Within 3-6 weeks, you get the results.

New York City maintains its own testing lab, but Newark doesn’t. Newark would have to contract with an independent lab. There could be other systems out there, and a lot of innovation is occurring now in water testing, but New York is right across the river and has had this system working for several years. Newark doesn’t need to invent something new.

Only with a system like this in place can skeptical Newarkers be convinced that the water that comes from their taps meets EPA standards. Its most obvious and immediate benefit is that it gives individual households the information they need to stop using filters and bottled water when they are no longer needed--and also to keep using filters and bottled water up until that time.

The anti-corrosive is not going to remove lead from every tap simultaneously, magically eradicating the lead in every pipe all at once. Instead, the chemical processes will work at different rates in different houses, and the lead may be gone from one neighbor’s house months before it’s gone from another’s.

With testing, each family can learn for itself when its own water crisis has passed, rather than waiting for some authority figure to declare that everyone’s crisis is over. Even if everyone in Newark trusted the official word, it would be better to let individual families return to regular usage based on their own circumstances, and not try to impose a single uniform date.

Testing also treats everyone in Newark the same way. Many people who don’t get their water from the Pequannock through lead service pipes -- the current target group -- are also worried about their water. City officials should not dismiss those worries out of hand, and should realize that words alone are no longer enough to allay people’s reasonable fears.

A robust water testing program is also the best way to prevent a recurrence of the water crisis. If, before 2016, the city had been getting multiple hundreds of observations from each water source every year, rather than a few dozen every three years, the water department could have seen the problem emerge and taken action to resolve it before it escalated. And residents could have been clamoring for action because they would have known what was happening. More recently, if Newarkers had been able to check how well their filters were working by getting quick and easy test results on the filtered water, the city never would have been surprised and thrown into confusion, fear, and national notoriety when fewer than a handful of filters were officially tested and failed.

The water testing program Newark needs is not cheap. Our very rough estimate is that it will cost around $150,000 to $250,000 annually, with some additional start-up costs in the first year. But that is less than the cost of just three months of bottled water restricted only to Pequannock users with lead service lines, according to the city’s experts.

Newarkers deserve to know what’s in the water that comes out of their faucets. Unless they can find out, the crisis of confidence could drag on long after the lead problems are corrected.

 

Dan O’Flaherty is a professor in the Department of Economics at Columbia University in New York City. Alexander van Geen is a research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which is also at Columbia University.

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