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Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers Community Leaders Fellowship Program

We are excited to announce the Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers Community Leaders Fellowship Program. The program is for emerging community leaders from communities with combined sewer systems who want to increase their understanding of water policy, advocacy, equity, organizing, and communications while expanding their networks.

Local leaders will build their capacity to affect the implementation of the combined sewer overflow (CSO) Long Term Control Plans and longer-term decisions related to climate change, flooding, and infrastructure and gain permanent skills and relationships that endure beyond this project. The program involves six bi-weekly virtual sessions (Wednesday, April 6 – Wednesday, June 15) with the potential for in-person events based on interest and availability. The program will be facilitated by experts in water policy, environmental justice, climate change, data, community organizing, and policy. Participants will receive a $600 stipend (distributed in two installments based on attendance). Space is limited, so register soon!

The Sewage-Free Streets and River campaign is committed to combating historical and ongoing exclusion by advancing leadership opportunities in underinvested communities. We are seeking applicants who are representative of CSO communities, specifically people of color and lower-income individuals.

For session details and information on how to apply, visit: https://sewagefreenj.org/resources/sewage-free-streets-and-rivers-community-leaders-fellowship-program/.

Stormwater Stories Open Mic at Paterson Falls

(Stormwater stories interviews at Paterson Falls. Sheila Baker Gujral interviewing Eva Razak)

“My problem is every time it rains, I get water in my basement, and then the sewers smell,” said Yolanda Mateo, a Paterson resident. “This last time, the flow looked like a river coming down and into my basement where I have the line of the electric. I was scared.”

Yolanda was one of many Paterson residents who shared her story at the Dec. 4, 2021 Stormwater Stories Open Mic at Paterson Falls. Struck by the devastation of Tropical Storm Ida, The Paterson Green Team, Waterspirit, The Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, and Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers collaborated to record firsthand accounts of how Paterson residents are impacted by flooding. These stories revealed that although Tropical Storm Ida severely impacted residents, it was not the first flood and will not be the last one. The flooding issues in Paterson have been occurring for decades.  

We are compiling these stories into a video and will share the video and clips in our upcoming newsletter, on the Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers website, and on social media. Here are some excerpts from the stories we gathered.

Frances Harrison:

“I’m here at the fabulous Great Falls and the Passaic River running behind us to talk about the problems that Paterson has with flooding. This river, which was introduced to the city from Alexander Hamilton, was a lifesaver 200 years ago. Now with the infrastructure and overflow of sewage of the city, this river has become a very big problem for Paterson. Ida came through, and the neighbors a block away from me—their basement was flooded up to the knee. I went to my neighbors—I got a little water in my house, but to see water up to the knees of a full basement of five rooms, it was just horrendous.”

Julio Hernandez:

“It’s a problem, and every time I’m fixing the driveway—it cracks our driveway and it’s an unending repair. Our foundation is getting mold from all the water coming in. It’s a big problem and it happens all the time. We don’t know what to do anymore. We talked to the City, and they told us there’s a drainage problem in our street. It’s cracking our sidewalk, and we don’t know what to do anymore.”

William Priestley:

“I’ve been a resident of Paterson for 75 years and a resident of People’s Park for 75 years. This problem has been going on since I was a little child. We used to play in these puddles years ago because we didn’t know about polio and all that stuff. But today, all these germs and diseases have come around, yet the kids are still in the streets playing. So it’s very dangerous with all the floods and conditions in Paterson. It should have been done 75 years ago. It still exists today in Paterson. We don’t need so many other things. We need this issue done. And really, it’s a shame. With all the money we have in the city of Paterson, nothing has been done and I’m sorry for that. The falls are beautiful, and the city is beautiful. Let’s keep it beautiful! The City of Paterson and State of New Jersey should fund the people who have all these disasters, basements being flooded out—they should fund them. Either for a sump pump, winterization, or something. It’s a real shame. They can afford it. Let them get it done. Thank you!”   

Martha Arencibia:

“Where I live, with my neighbors we hear lightning and thunder and we go into activation panic mode. We have to leave our homes, because we can’t stay there. All we can do is take our cars and locate them to higher ground so they don’t flood. We then come back to find the neighborhood in disarray. Cars all over the place. With Ida, September 1st, this year 2021, I had five feet of water in my basement. I lost everything: two furnaces, two hot water heaters, and personal belongings. I mean, it’s not even about the money. It’s about the effect of the disaster and the health hazard with no resources. You can’t fix something that is not covered by insurance. How do you recover? This is something that needs to be addressed. I can’t express it enough. How it affects us. If it doesn’t happen to you, you’re blessed. I’m so happy for you! But it happens to some neighbors, it happens to some bodegas, stores with food in it, our schools, our houses of worship, so we’re affected no matter what. Paterson is one of 21 municipalities in this area that has a combined sewer system, and I can’t express enough that there’s so much federal money to be had. Let’s tap into that money so we could give Paterson the resources that we need for our community because this is injustice, what we have going on here. If our elected officials do not push this subject, we have a serious CSO problem in Paterson and all the other municipalities that have this issue. We really have to work together as a community—bring more partners to come into a platform that we could actually tap into the resources that are now available. This is a crisis for humanity. It’s time that we talk [about] CSO.  It’s time that we address this problem, because I’m a flood victim. I’m not just a resident of Paterson. I’m a flood victim. I can’t even swim! But anyway, that’s it.”                              

New Jersey is Planning for Resilience

New Jersey’s regional and local governments are learning how to incorporate the impacts of climate change into decisions about land use, housing, open space, and infrastructure investments. The State of New Jersey was awarded a $15 million federal grant as part of the Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in 2016. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is administering $10 million for the Resilient NJ program. The remaining $5 million is being used to develop a toolkit of best practices for regional stormwater infrastructure.

Resilient NJ funds the development and implementation of four Resilience and Adaptation Action Plans for the Atlantic County Coastal, Northeastern, Raritan River and Bay, and Long Beach Island regions. For each region, municipal, non-profit, and consulting firms were awarded grants to develop their own regional plans. The regions were selected from the nine counties that were most adversely impacted by Hurricane Sandy. Each region includes three adjacent municipalities. Two of the regions, Northeastern and Raritan River and Bay, include municipalities that also have combined sewer systems and are planning substantial investments to upgrade their sewer systems.

The first phase of Resilient NJ was launched in Spring 2021 with regional planning efforts that include a strong emphasis on public input. The focus of the Spring 2021 phase was to develop a vision and priorities, while the summer focused on risks and tools. Now, the regions are working on potential solutions. Looking ahead to 2022, phase two of the program will involve another round of stakeholder engagement on Action Plan Implementation. 

Addressing combined sewer overflows has been a topic of discussion in the meetings for the Northeastern region, where all of the adjacent municipalities—Bayonne, Jersey City, Newark, and Hoboken—have combined sewer systems. One participant noted in Resilient Northeastern NJ’s recently released Vision and Priorities Report that “residents in the North Ward [of Newark] are now starting to experience the effects of flooding in their community that is believed to be the result of capacity constraints of the City’s stormwater conveyance system during precipitation events as it relates to development.” Northeastern New Jersey is soliciting feedback on this report, as well as feedback on flood risks and resilience solutions. Meeting minutes and more opportunities to engage and provide feedback can be found on all four of the regional project websites.

What should be in the next CSO permit?

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) wants to hear from people who are interested, concerned, or impacted by combined sewer overflows (CSOs) about what should be in the next combined sewer overflow (CSO) permit. The forthcoming CSO permits will state the specific projects and timelines that each municipal permit holder will implement in the next five years, as well as general conditions that will apply to all of the permits related to issues like public engagement and metrics for evaluating the projects. 

A stakeholder process kicked off in late October with a questionnaire that included the 2015 permit condition for public engagement and asked about issues and solutions related to public engagement, Supplemental CSO Teams, guidance documents, metrics, climate change, and environmental justice. The deadline for submitting the questionnaire is Friday, Nov. 19. To be included in the stakeholder process, email NJCSOProgram@dep.nj.gov. A stakeholder meeting will be scheduled for early December 2021.

This is What an Environmental Injustice Looks Like

Trash builds up in front of businesses in Paterson a month after Hurricane Ida. Photo Credit: Martha Arencibia (Paterson, NJ)

Our worst fears about the impacts of flooding on our outdated wastewater infrastructure were realized in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Paterson residents have been under a boil water advisory for six weeks, 25 people were killed in New Jersey, and hundreds of residents from Elizabeth have been left for weeks without permanent housing. 

Six weeks after the storm, residents are losing patience. “Enough is enough” is the rallying cry of Paterson, NJ resident Martha Arencibia. Ida was not the first storm to cause contaminated sewage water to flood Martha’s home, and it certainly will not be the last. She’s done everything she can to protect her home from flooding, but the water still finds a way. Martha spent her own money to install a sewer trap in her basement, became a local advocate for solutions to combined sewer overflows (CSOs), initiated an adopt-a-catch basin program, organized public outreach meetings, and informed the State about CSO issues in Paterson. She even started a petition to urge officials at all levels of government to take immediate action to stop sewage flooding in Paterson, NJ.

Plans to upgrade New Jersey’s combined sewer systems were submitted on Oct. 30, 2020. Nearly a year—and many storms—later, communities are still waiting in unimaginable circumstances for answers, solutions, and action. In response to the lack of communication with the public, the Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers campaign requested that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) hold a series of public meetings with the municipal and utility permit holders to respond to community comments on the CSO Long Term Control Plans and to gather feedback on how to engage residents in the implementation of these plans. NJDEP Assistant Commissioner Patricia Gardner responded to our requests in a letter informing us that the Division of Water Quality will be reaching out to stakeholders in the near future to conduct stakeholder sessions regarding the CSO permit requirements and their relationship to the important issues mentioned in our letter. Gardner stated that “the intent of these sessions will be to gather feedback, which can be used to generate permit provisions.”

 

 

CSO Permit Update

Projects that will reduce flooding and sewage overflows are coming. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) will start the process of releasing the next round of five-year Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) permits within the next three months. These permits will include the green and gray infrastructure projects approved by the NJDEP to reduce CSOs. The cost, timeline, and projects will be included in the permits, which are based on the approved 20-30 year CSO Long Term Control Plans (LTCPs). The Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers campaign is advocating for overarching requirements for public participation, green infrastructure, climate change, and environmental justice to be included in all of the forthcoming permits.

 

In 2015, the NJDEP issued five-year CSO permits, which “permitted” 25 municipalities and utilities that own and operate combined sewer outfalls to continue to overflow while they met the nine minimum controls and developed Long Term Control Plans. In 2020, all of the permit holders submitted their plans to the NJDEP. Community stakeholders had three months to review the plans and submit comments, while the NJDEP conducted its own review of the plans and drafted its response letters.

 

The first round of comment letters from the NJDEP on the LTCPs asked municipal and utility permit holders to revise their plans by addressing flooding, prioritizing projects with the most impact, and taking climate change into account. At this point, the NJDEP has received revisions from most of the permit holders. There is no set timeline for moving forward, but representatives of the NJDEP informed us that the first CSO permit will go out in the next three months and that there will be a public hearing. The remaining CSO permits are being worked on simultaneously. 

Hurricane Ida Demonstrated the Urgent Need for Sewer Upgrades

Photo Credit: Hannah Binder (Hoboken, NJ)

The flooding from Hurricane Ida emphasized the urgent need for major investments in New Jersey’s wastewater infrastructure. Streets were flooded, and sewer backups were pervasive in communities with combined sewer systems. Indeed, the 100-year storm has proven to be a once-in-a-decade affair. The impacts from the storm raise two important questions:

  1. How do we capitalize on the increasing attention devoted to the infrastructure funding and repairs we need to make our communities climate-resilient?
  2. How do we provide immediate assistance to residents and businesses suffering from property damage?

Federal assistance is needed to not only address the immediate damage caused by the storm, but to support larger infrastructure projects that will prevent future calamities as well. Hudson, Essex, Mercer, and Union counties are now eligible to apply for disaster relief assistance along with Bergen, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Passaic, and Somerset counties. Governor Murphy is urging everyone who experienced damage from Hurricane Ida to log their damages in order to receive assistance “as quickly as possible.”

Funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has already reached New Jersey. These funds are intended to provide relief to individuals and businesses affected by COVID-19 and can also be used for “necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.” Additional substantial federal funding for wastewater upgrades could be coming to New Jersey from the pending federal infrastructure bill. In an interview with National Public Radio, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop committed the majority of the prospective dollars from the federal infrastructure bill to “flood mitigation because you can’t be dealing with flooding issues every single year.” According to the White House, the pending federal infrastructure bill is the “largest investment in clean drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in American history, delivering clean water to millions of families. The bill would provide $55 billion to upgrade water infrastructure to replace lead service lines and pipes, and another $50 billion would go toward making our water systems more resilient. 

Federal funding for infrastructure seems to be lining up with the finalization of combined sewer overflow Long Term Control Plans, so the next few months will be crucial for determining how these funds are used. Hurricane Ida definitely showed that upgrading our combined sewer systems should be at the top of our lists. 

Capacity Building Grants Support Community Outreach On Combined Sewer Overflows

The Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers (SFSR) campaign awarded six organizations a total of  $7,750 in capacity building grants in the spring of 2021. The purpose of these grants is to support efforts by partner organizations to conduct public outreach on combined sewer overflow (CSO) impacts, solutions, challenges, and financing. The latest round of grants focused on small business outreach and the expansion of initiatives’ reach among residents. Here is a summary of some of the activities that were organized by our partners with the support of the capacity building grants: 

 

Paterson outreach efforts got a boost. The Passaic River Coalition (PRC) worked with Paterson Green Team member Martha Arencibia to reach small businesses in Paterson through mailers and in-person outreach. PRC Executive Director Laurie Howard reported receiving the most interest from automotive repair and junk yards.  According to Howard, “no one was aware of the CSO plans, but they did express interest in any improvements.” The Great Swamp Watershed Association (GSWA) partnered with the Paterson Green Team to organize a virtual public outreach meeting and presentation on the benefits of green infrastructure to the reduction of CSOs. The GSWA and Paterson Green Team recruited 40 more residents to adopt catch basins and distributed kits that included grabbers, gloves, vests, masks, flyers on CSOs, and tools for documenting the trash collected from catch basins. These kits were distributed at an adopt-a-catch basin give-away meetup, as well as at other events. 

 

Newark small businesses, elected officials, and community members learned about CSOs. La Casa De Don Pedro distributed materials developed by the SFSR campaign to 88 small businesses located along the Lower Broadway commercial corridor, and community outreach staff presented on CSOs at several Lower Broadway Neighborhood Association meetings. In addition, La Casa De Don Pedro translated outreach materials into Spanish. COVID restrictions made in-person outreach difficult, so staff members used their email and social media networks to reach over 600 Lower Broadway residents and local elected officials with information on CSOs. Newark DIG is developing a Newark-focused outreach brochure that will inform small- and medium-sized businesses about the CSO issue, what steps the city is taking to correct the problem, the possible financing solutions the city is considering, and how business owners will be affected (as well as how they can get involved and informed). These brochures will be printed and distributed to small businesses in Newark.

 

The Greenville Neighborhood Alliance (GNA) spread the word about CSOs among residents of the Greenville neighborhood and beyond. GNA distributed information on CSOs at local events, including the Black Business Matters Juneteenth Festival and Ward F Block Party, and organized a networking barbeque for small businesses. SFSR coordinator Mo Kinberg, as well as Sustainable Jersey City, presented at the barbeque. GNA also placed an ad on CSO challenges and solutions in “The Frederick Douglass Juneteenth Celebration Memorable Journal.”  The ad ran all day on June 19, 2021  and was shared via social media (across 5 pages and over 20 groups) and emails to all networks.

 

Future City Inc. expanded its outreach efforts on CSOs to regional residents. The organization utilized informational materials and presentations to improve awareness regarding CSOs not only in Elizabeth, but in other blueway municipalities as well. Future City Inc. wanted to target non-CSO residents  so that all could understand the impacts of combined sewer systems on the region. Educational materials developed and shared included a crossword puzzle, a bilingual flyer, pictures of local sewers and CSOs, and a  map portraying all the official locations of CSOs within the municipalities along the blueway. Future City Inc. presented information about CSOs, storm drains, and gray infrastructure, as well as their impact on communities along the Arthur Kill Blueway, as part of the Waterfront Alliance and NY/NJ Harbor Estuary Program’s 14th Annual City of Water Day event. It will present the same information at the City of Elizabeth’s 2021 Estuary Day in October 2021.

 

Many of these efforts are ongoing. Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers will continue to partner with these organizations, as well as campaign partners and any groups interested in conducting outreach on CSO solutions, challenges, and financing. 

Photo credit: Greenville Neighborhood Alliance.
Photo credit: Martha Arencibia, Paterson Green Team

New Outreach Material To Engage Small Businesses on Sewer Solutions

Flooding is bad for business. Luckily, solutions are coming to communities with combined sewer systems that would boost the health of residents and businesses by upgrading stormwater and wastewater infrastructure. Use this new outreach brochure to inform small businesses about the combined sewer overflow (CSO) issue, how it impacts their business, what’s being done, and how much it will cost.  

The brochure designed by MnM Consulting and MOKOJUMBIE implements graphics and text to describe the problem, solutions, and funding options that municipalities are considering to pay for sewer upgrades. The estimated costs to upgrade New Jersey’s combined sewer systems range from $2.4 to $3.4 billion.  

Image courtesy of MnM Consulting

The brochure demonstrates how each option will impact residential and business rate-payers. For example, it explains that “some towns will raise sewer rates for existing customers for the next 20-40 years. This means residents and small business owners will pay more every year for stormwater improvements and maintenance.”

Image courtesy of MnM Consulting

Option 2 illustrates how a stormwater fee is a more equitable way to charge property owners for hard surfaces that burden our sewer systems with stormwater runoff. A fee based on paved surfaces would ensure that all property owners who are contributing stormwater to our overburdened sewer systems pay a fee based on the amount of stormwater runoff they contribute to a system. Currently, large party owners are not paying their fair share. If we do not correct this, residential rate-payers will disproportionately pay for the sewer upgrades.

Image courtesy of MnM Consulting

Option 3 shows how a blanket increase through property taxes would result in residents, small businesses, and warehouses paying the same increase despite differences in how much they contribute to the problem.

Small business owners are urged to take action by visiting SewageFreeNJ.org/ NoStatusQuo and taking a short survey so we can connect them with local decision-makers, the New Jersey Stormwater Utility Resource Center, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Stormwater Utility Guidance website. Check out all the resources that the Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers campaign has developed to assist you with engaging residents and small business owners in shaping their communities’ solutions to reduce localized flooding and the raw sewage dumped into rivers and streams due to CSOs.

What Should Be Required in the Next CSO Permit?

Specific requirements for public participation, green infrastructure, environmental justice, and climate change were recommended in a letter that Sewage-Free Streets and Rivers (SFSR) partners sent to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) on August 4, 2021. SFSR partners and members of the Jersey Water Works (JWW) Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Committee collaborated to review the technical comments that the NJDEP sent to the CSO permit holders on their Long Term Control Plans (LTCPs). Both groups submitted letters with recommendations to the NJDEP that were based on their technical response letters and focused on requirements for the next CSO permit. 

SFSR’s letter built off the NJDEP’s comments and included specific recommendations to ensure that:

  • Future public participation is inclusive, accountable, and transparent. 
  • Plans are implemented within 20 years and address flooding and the impacts of climate change.
  • Green infrastructure is implemented within the first five years of the plans, and gray infrastructure projects with the greatest impact are prioritized.
  • Environmental justice is part of the implementation and decision-making processes. 
  • Costs for rate-payers are reduced through cost sharing between regional utilities and municipal permit holders, utilizing the I-Bank, and evaluating stormwater utilities.

Read the SFSR letter and detailed recommendations here

Additionally, the groups asked the NJDEP to jointly host a series of public meetings—within the next six months—with the regional, utility, and municipal permit holders for each of the regional LTCPs. The purpose of the public meetings is for the permit holders and the NJDEP to respond to comments and questions from the public on the CSO LTCPs and to enable the public to provide input on public participation in the next CSO permit. The groups also asked the NJDEP Office of Environmental Justice and the Division of Water Quality to coordinate efforts related to the CSO permit and rulemaking for the New Jersey Environmental Justice Law

All of the NJDEP’s technical comments on the CSO LTCPs have been sent to the CSO permit holders and posted on the NJDEP website. The CSO permit holders have 60 days from the date that the letters were sent to respond to the NJDEP’s comment letters. 

After both technical issues and implementation schedules are adequately addressed, the NJDEP Division of Water Quality will make a decision on the LTCPs. SFSR partners are advocating for changes to the proposed LTCPs and requirements for the next CSO permit that are needed to ensure equitable wastewater infrastructure investments.