An expensive problem is buried beneath South Jersey — the winding maze of pipes that delivers drinking water to faucets and taps is getting old.

Very old, in some cases, and that age could prove costly to South Jersey water customers.

Some industry officials, including the state Board of Public Utilities and a bipartisan collection of former state executives, have been indicating the state’s water infrastructure should be replaced. That would inevitably mean higher water bills, and in some parts of the country bills could triple in the next 25 years to handle replacement costs, the American Water Works Association said in a 2012 report. The average monthly water bill in New Jersey is currently about $45 a month, according to BPU data.

“I expect water rates will have to rise significantly in order to fund all this infrastructure replacement,” said Gary Ziegler, director of the Wildwood Water Utility, which this year is replacing about three miles of mains among its 120 miles of pipe. “For the last 100 years, water was a real bargain. It’s still a bargain today, but when you think the residents of Wildwood are paying $50 or $60 every three months for water, just how much is your cable bill or electric bill?”

In New Jersey, it’s estimated replacing drinking-water infrastructure will cost $7.9 billion over the next 20 years, the Environmental Protection Agency said in an April report to Congress.

Water infrastructure is a complicated problem in New Jersey, involving thousands of miles of mains and more than 600 community water systems. Their useful life is often pegged at 75 to 100 years. Their age, however, is not measurable solely by the age of the pipes, but by the needs of the system as water demand grows.

Even some soil can corrode pipes in decades rather than centuries, particularly among pockets of South Jersey barrier islands where wetlands were filled in with materials more corrosive than the natural soil.

“We had a development in Ocean City where we put in mains in the early 1980s, and by 2000 we had to go in and replace all those because the soil ate the parts right up,” said David Gelona, manager of field operations at New Jersey American Water in its Egg Harbor Township office. What should have survived at least 75 years lasted barely 20.

“Now, in those areas it is wrapped with a plastic, but at that time, in the early ’80s, we weren’t routinely doing that,” he said.

Most of the pipes installed today are made of ductile iron or a thick PVC pipe, rather than cast iron, and coated with protective materials in corrosive areas.

These pipes are thinner and lighter, easier to construct and install, said Greg DiLoreto, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers and CEO of the Tualatin Valley Water District in Oregon.

But their lifespan is still about the same as the old pipes — 75 to 100 years, he said.

Facing Our Future, a New Jersey bipartisan group of former government executives under Republican and Democratic administrations, released a report in April recommending public and private water companies fund upgrading outmoded infrastructure by increasing rates.

“Yes, it is a tough sell, but if we plan right and work on it over a long period of time, those daunting numbers become a lot less,” said Sam Crane, a member of Facing Our Future’s leadership group and a former state treasurer under Democrat Gov. James Florio.

“By paying attention to it regularly, maintaining it over the long term, you avoid some really big bills down the road,” he said.

Marlin Zaitoun, owner of the Northfield Diner & Family Restaurant in Northfield, pays $500 every few months for the business’ water bill. Zaitoun, of Egg Harbor Township, said she does not give much thought to water infrastructure, but she doesn’t particularly like the thought of paying more. The diner is a customer of New Jersey American Water.

“Electricity is a lot more, but water is one of my smaller bills,” she said. “I would rather not (pay more), but as electric goes up the same thing. Everything goes up.”

At the Wildwood authority, Ziegler said it has been proactive in replacing mains in the past decade. The work is not cheap. The authority has borrowed for the improvement over a 20-year period. Servicing that debt is nearly one-third of the authority’s more than $7 million annual budget, he said.

Rates last increased in spring 2012, about 8 percent, he said.

The infrastructure issues facing New Jersey are shared by other states. Pennsylvania will need to spend $14.2 billion on drinking water infrastructure in the next 20 years, the EPA estimated. New York faces a $22 billion cost.

In all, the EPA recently estimated it would cost $384 billion to improve the nation’s drinking water infrastructure through 2030.

Most water systems in South Jersey are municipally run, but the largest in the region and the state is New Jersey American Water, which has 60,000 accounts serving nearly 200,000 people in Atlantic and Cape May counties.

This includes all or parts of Absecon, Linwood, Northfield, Ocean City, Pleasantville, Somers Point, and Egg Harbor, Galloway, Middle and Upper townships. New Jersey American Water is a subsidiary of investor-owned, publicly traded American Water.

The BPU last year approved a program that has boosted what New Jersey American Water spends on infrastructure. The Voorhees, Camden County-based utility is spending $255 million on New Jersey infrastructure this year, compared with $200 million in 2012 and $170 million in 2011, spokesman Peter Eschbach said.

Stefanie Brand, director of the state Division of Rate Counsel, which represents utility customers, said the utility can spend up to 5 percent of its revenue on infrastructure projects on top of normal spending. The benefit to the utility is it can get reimbursed earlier, rather than every two years or so.

Brand said the program still provides spending oversight from her office and the BPU.

“The idea behind this one was to do it slow and steady. That way we can keep up over the longer term instead of a one-time infusion of a bunch of money, which may or may not help,” Brand said.

“Think about how much pipe there is under the ground. Every single house has a pipe,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s a possibility of some great catastrophe further down the line — this is more like death by a thousand cuts. … It almost makes it harder to plan ahead and try to solve.”

Leaky pipes mean lost water. In its report, Facing Our Future estimated 20 percent to 22 percent of all treated water in New Jersey is lost to leaks.

Eschbach said New Jersey American Water estimates its water system loses 12 percent to 13 percent of the water in its system, which includes a small percentage that disappears when water systems are flushed periodically.

Neil Goldfine, executive director of the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority, said the city’s water infrastructure had been neglected for years — about $3 million was spent from 1950 to 1980, he said.

Goldfine, who started at the authority 33 years ago and is retiring this year, said $104 million has been spent since 1980 — a change that helped drop nonrevenue water loss from 35 percent to about 16 percent.

Atlantic City was aided by rules in the early 1980s that made casinos responsible for replacing water mains in the square block surrounding them, Goldfine said.

However, there are still some very old pipes underground.

“Some of the pipes under the street were put in in the 1880s, and they’re still here,” he said. “We’re trying to replace them, but replacing all the pipes under the street is not affordable — that’s true of anyone’s infrastructure.”

In a recent report, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a D grade to the nation’s water infrastructure, warning “we will have to face the need to ‘catch up’ with past deferred investments, and the more we delay, the harder the job will be when the day of reckoning comes.”

Fred Sickels, director of the Division of Water Supply and Geoscience at the state Department of Environmental Protection, said replacing New Jersey’s water infrastructure means every water user will have to contribute.

“And that’s going to make sure every time you turn the faucet on, water is going to come out. We’re starting to get to that point now where we can start having major failures in certain areas if we’re not careful,” he said.

On a statewide basis, it is hard to calculate what impact infrastructure replacements could have on future water bills since water systems vary widely, said Dennis Ciemniecki of the New Jersey Section of the American Water Works Association, an industry trade group.

“In general, I think it’s fair to say rates will go up — water and wastewater infrastructure is very capital-intensive — it costs more to put a water main in than a circuit on a pole,” he said.

New Jersey’s infrastructure is gaining new attention following Hurricane Sandy, which brought more attention to troubles when utility systems fail.

At an April hearing sponsored by the New Jersey Clean Water Council, Assistant DEP Commissioner Michelle Siekerka said the storm — which ruptured sewer mains and caused mass power outages at water and wastewater facilities — could help bring more support to infrastructure needs.

Major recent storms brought light to the needs of a resilient system as well, said Stephen Blankenship, executive director of the Hamilton Township Municipal Utilities Authority and president of the South Jersey Water Professionals Association.

Hamilton has 77 miles of main. Much of it is fairly new, installed during development booms from 2000 to 2007, he said.

It was not Sandy but the June 30, 2012, derecho windstorm in Atlantic County that knocked out power and had the authority running on emergency generators — for a week in some parts.

“One of the big things that came out of Hurricane Sandy is resilience, the ability to withstand some of the storms,” Blankenship said. “It’s not just the shape of the infrastructure but how resilient is it.”

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