FILE - NJ Lead Water Pipes New Jersey 1-9-2020

A worker hands a piece of lead pipe to a colleague as they work to remove water service lines Jan. 9, 2020, in Trenton, N.J.

(The Center Square) – Safe water is a right and it’s a public good, Elyse Pivnick, senior director of environmental health for the nonprofit group Isles, told the New Jersey Assembly Special Committee on Infrastructure and Natural Resources.

The problem is finding the money to pay for the state’s aging water pipes, some which are contaminated with lead.

Gov. Phil Murphy included $80 million in his February state budget proposal to address the state’s water infrastructure, an amount that likely will be axed because of the budget issues the state is facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers are now scrambling to find ways to pay for improvements on a system called “grossly adequate” by Zoe Baldwin, director of government affairs and communications for the Utility Transportation Contractors Association.

About 104 systems affecting five million New Jersey residents have lead service lines, said Cheryl Norton, president of New Jersey American Water. Most of those lines were installed before the 1940s she said.

“We believe all those lead service lines should be replaced,” Norton said. “It needs to be realistic and we need to find a way to pay for this.”

One challenge – infrastructure issues seem to be kicked down the road until something happens, said Kareem Adeem, water and sewer director for the City of Newark.

A $130 million bond issue was approved by the Essex County Improvement Authority to replace all lead water pipes in Newark over a 3-year span. Adeem said grants are needed to help offset costs for water departments.

Committee Chairman Robert Karabinchak, D-Middlesex, said the $80 million proposed before the COVID-19 pandemic shouldn’t be cut, and a sustainable funding method needs to be established.

“The lead doesn’t change,” Karabinchak said. “That’s still an issue for people’s health and their life.”

Finding the money to improve infrastructure in a post-pandemic world will be challenging because water utilities are prohibited from cutting off service or charging interest and late fees due to the pandemic.

“We think there is just a great risk that capital budgets will suffer because of the customer impact after the moratorium will be so great there will be some misdirection of water revenues to the general budget to keep them afloat,” said Dan Kennedy, director of environmental and utility operations for the Utility Transportation Contractors Association.

Pivnick proposed another alternative.

“If we can’t pay for it from our budget right now or from a new bond issue due to the strains brought on by COVID-19, then we need to allow utilities to raise rates slightly for a finite period of time to pay for this infrastructure overall,” Pivnick said.

Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro, D-Hudson, who the vice chairwoman the committee, said she wants the committee to do more than listen to testimony.

“I think it’s important that we aggressively do something, that we show that this committee really went through it all and that we really want to see change,” she said.