Here’s one solution for Newark’s lead-tainted water misery

Updated Aug 22, 2019

By Paul Sarlo

Newark needs an immediate solution to ensure the safety of its drinking water and that solution requires money and money fast. The needed money will not come from Washington D.C. but it can come from a Public Private Partnership, State Sen. Paul Sarlo suggests.


The United States of America is not a Third World developing country. In America, people should never, ever have to live in fear that the water they drink could sicken them or cause disabilities in their young children. Yet that is exactly the situation for tens of thousands of Newark residents due to the ongoing problem of lead contamination in Newark’s water system.

Most people see the Newark water problem as a public health issue and it most certainly is. However, as a civil engineer and an elected official, I see the Newark water problem as a symptom of a much larger epidemic – government’s failure to properly maintain and invest in public infrastructure.

Around the country, people have died in bridge collapses, highway crashes, train derailments and other tragedies caused by failing public infrastructure that was neglected by the government agencies entrusted with maintaining them. Unfortunately, the outrage and sorrow stemming from these incidents quickly fades with time and nothing ever gets done to deal with the fact our country is reliant on public infrastructure that is often 100 years old and functionally obsolete.

Who is to blame? The answer is, we are all to blame.

Too many politicians are either worried about their next election or are obsessed with following a misguided political philosophy of starving the so-called government beast of financial resources. Therefore, they don’t raise tolls to replace a rusting bridge, or they don’t raise fares to upgrade outdated locomotives with new technology such as positive train control, or they don’t raise rates to replace a decrepit water system’s lead pipes.

Too many members of the public think they can get something for nothing. The public needs to accept the reality that you can’t have 21st Century infrastructure at 20th century prices. Too often, citizens express outrage and accuse government officials of lying or corruption when they are asked to pay an extra dollar to improve a vital public resource and yet they think nothing of paying an extra dollar or more for a Starbucks coffee or an extra hundred dollars or more for the latest cell phone.

When 100-year-old lead pipes that carry our drinking water get replaced, the public doesn’t turn out to applaud and cheer and the politicians don’t show up to cut ribbons and pose for pictures. In fact, often the opposite occurs and the politicians and the public show up together to grandstand and complain about the inconvenience of the road being closed or the water service being interrupted! As a result, the 100-year-old pipes remain and a tragedy waits to happen.

In the last century, much of our state and local public infrastructure was built with resources from the federal government. Unfortunately, in this century, the federal government’s current political actors and current political climate make that an unrealistic dream. So the burden of investing in public infrastructure falls to states and localities. While local governments and their citizens don’t necessarily have the actual money to pay for improvements to public infrastructure, they do have assets that can produce the money necessary for improvements. That asset is the public infrastructure itself.

Governments can attract private investment in their infrastructure by sharing the revenue generated by these assets with the investor. It’s called Public Private Partnership (PPP) and it works.

Many towns in New Jersey don’t own their own water systems. They contract with a private water utility company to provide water, repair broken pipes and make investments in the water treatment and delivery system. This model has many benefits. First, it removes the financial risk to the community of having to pay for major repairs. Second, it removes the operational risk to the community and its inexperienced public works department of having to respond to emergency pipe breaks or system failures. Third, and most importantly, it removes the political risk to both the elected officials and the public. For elected officials, the political risk is the risk of being blamed for rate increases or service problems. For the public, the political risk is the risk of the elected officials using the public utility as a patronage pit for unqualified hires or bloated salaries or excessive professional service contracts.

In the case of Newark, the city’s water system is asset rich but cash poor. Newark’s water system owns valuable assets including reservoirs, two major treatment plants (Wanaque and Pequannock) and miles of well-constructed large reliable transmission mains that extend from the reservoirs under major highways and communities and feed Newark’s distribution system. It is the customer service lines, many of which contain lead, within the distribution system that are in dire need of replacement.

Another valuable asset is the fact that Newark has a monopoly over its water customers, which include many major international businesses and many large-scale buildings and facilities. Combined, the Newark water system’s assets are extremely valuable and could be used to secure private investment and cash to replace its lead water lines under the streets of Newark.

Newark needs an immediate solution to ensure the safety of its drinking water and that solution requires money and money fast. The needed money will not come from Washington D.C. but it can come from a Public Private Partnership. Newark and the State of New Jersey should immediately work together to develop a PPP model to attract the investment needed to fix Newark’s drinking water problem.

A Newark Water PPP can develop a lead service line replacement program that utilizes the private entity’s engineering expertise, scientific research, trained professionals and MONEY. And a properly structured PPP agreement doesn’t have to result in rate increases for residential consumers because the private entity can avail itself of various federal tax savings that come from investing in public utility systems.

Of course, there will be numerous outside interest groups and agitators who will criticize the PPP model because it entails bringing private businesses into the public sector. Unfortunately, none of these outside critics have any constructive solutions or any ideas on how to raise money to address this problem.

Newark’s problems are New Jersey’s problems, but it doesn’t mean we have to solve these problems alone. Public Private Partnerships, when properly managed and rigorously monitored, can be the solution that ensures Newark’s and New Jersey’s glory days are still ahead of us.


State Sen. Paul Sarlo represents the 36th legislative district.

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