In D.C., head of South Jersey utility holds it up as national model

Camden County’s Municipal Utilities Authority chief told a U.S. Senate subcommittee last week that the utility is a “successful case study” in utilizing federal funds to upgrade wastewater infrastructure while simultaneously keeping fees low for ratepayers.

Andrew Kricun, executive director and chief engineer of the CCMUA, appeared Thursday before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works to testify about the critical importance of improving the nation’s water infrastructure. New Jersey’s junior senator, Cory Booker, sits on the subcommittee.

The American Society for Civil Engineers recently gave the nation’s water infrastructure a D+ rating, while the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that $271 billion will be needed to improve wastewater treatment facilities across the country over the next 25 years.

The water crises in Flint, Mich., and elsewhere have turned the spotlight on the aging infrastructure that is providing drinking water and wastewater treatment in both urban and rural areas, officials said.

“We need to look at the vast gap between what the infrastructure issues are and the funding that is needed to make improvements on that infrastructure,” Kricun said in an interview Friday.

Kricun was among three experts testifying before the Senate subcommittee on Fisheries, Water and Wildlife.

He said he talked to the panel about finding funding to pay for long-term improvements for urban and semi-urban wastewater facilities such as Camden County’s, while a panel member of the Rural Drinking Water Assurance Program, Mike Frazee, of Arkansas, discussed how smaller communities are being impacted by the nation’s water infrastructure crisis. A third speaker, Josh Ellis, vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago, testified about issues involving urban water infrastructure planning.

Kricun testified that finding funding for continually maintaining and upgrading water systems such as  Camden County’s is one of “our greatest challenges as a utility.”

“Like clean-water agencies around the country, Camden County MUA has many competing pressures — including the need to reinvest in aging infrastructure, maintain and upgrade treatment processes, comply with Clean Water Act rules and regulations, make strategic long-term investments, and help support a high quality of life in our community which has significant affordability constraints,” Kricun testified.

Kricun, however, said Camden County’s use of low-interest loans — at a 1 percent interest rate vs. the normal 4 percent to 5 percent — provided by the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust, which is funded by the EPA, had allowed the county to replace and continue to upgrade its wastewater treatment infrastructure over the last 30 years.

The new system has helped the utility keep up with demand while keeping its costs steady as new technology has lowered operational expenses, Kricun said.

With about $500 million in state and federally funded low-interest loans obtained to make the improvements, the utility has been able to maintain current rates for utility users close to what they were paying in the mid-1990s, Kricun said Friday.

Kricun said the average customer was paying about $337 a year for wastewater treatment in 1996 and current pays about $352.

Kricun said he offered the subcommittee a five-point proposal for keeping the funding coming to utilities such as his, including adopting private-sector tactics to keep operational costs down and continuing to fund low-interest loans, like those utilized by Camden County, to make its upgrades.

Camden County Freeholder Jeff Nash, a liaison to the CMUA, said in a statement that he agreed with Kricun’s call for increased attention to water infrastructure.

“If we utilize the resources we have, combine them where appropriate, and fund the necessary improvement projects, we, as a nation, can move forward into a period where our citizens no longer have to wonder if their water is safe for their family,” Nash said. “Andrew’s testimony showed the Senate that Camden County is committed to being a leader on this front.”