New Jersey might now have the nation’s best accountability law for water systems – if only it could get them to comply with it.

The Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee has begun a series of hearings into ways to improve the state’s Water Quality Accountability Act, which took effect nearly two years ago and establishes new safety, reliability and oversight requirements for public water systems.

“The Water Quality Accountability Act has a chance to be a model to be imitated elsewhere, and it puts New Jersey in the vanguard of water policy leadership,” said Manny Teodoro, a water quality expert and associate professor at Texas A&M University.

However, 16 of 287 public water systems didn’t file any certification at all this year, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. Teodoro said 55 of the submitted certifications that weren’t signed by the highest-ranking official, as required as an accountability measure.

Teodoro said larger utilities are generally more compliant with both reporting and water quality more generally.

He said larger utilities in New Jersey, serving 50,000 people or more, commit half as many violations as systems that serve 5,000 people and that it might be good – though tricky – to compel them to merge.

“It’s a complicated technical and legal process. It’s also a very complicated political process,” Teodoro said.

Board of Public Utilities President Joseph Fiordaliso said the BPU encourages small water companies to merge with larger ones.

“I don’t want to put anybody out of business. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. But I think the customer would be served better,” Fiordaliso said.

The Water Quality Accountability Act will require water systems to create and implement an asset management plan and provide a report to the state every three years on their progress toward making infrastructure improvements. The first reports to the state will come in 2022.

State Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, said it will help answer a mystery: “The lack of the means to honestly assess the overall state of our nation and in fact here in New Jersey of our state’s infrastructure and what those funding needs entail.”

State Sen. Chris Connors, R-Ocean, said it’s going to be an enormous liability for municipalities that already charge residents high property taxes.

“It’s going to be an extreme eye-opener, and I’m very, very worried about and concerned about what the outcome is going to be when we finally get those numbers,” Connors said.

Through the WQAA, the DEP also intends to collect more detailed information about how much water their systems lose as it is delivered to customers.

In addition to conserving a natural resource, Board of Public Utilities Commissioner Mary-Anna Holden said residents would save money on chemicals and electricity if water loss could be meaningfully curtailed.

“Statewide, we continue to lose about 130 million gallons per day. That’s almost 200 Olympic-sized swimming pools per day,” Holden said.

The next hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

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