The Water Story

How Newark’s Action Became a Model for the Nation

An eerie quiet settled over Newark following the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders issued by Mayor Ras J. Baraka. But the staccato pummeling of jackhammers and the diesel engine roar of backhoes became welcome sounds in some sections of the City. Even the pandemic did not stop the Mayor from delivering on a promise he made the previous summer. Newark would be first among major cities in America to replace all of its lead service lines. Newark would be the first to accomplish this at no cost to residents in capital outlay, tax increases, or water rate hikes — no small task, as evidenced by the number of American cities, towns, and rural hamlets with similar situations. Elevated lead levels in drinking water due to lead service lines connecting individual houses to water mains buried deep under the streets are a national problem. Except for a few municipalities, expensive infrastructure replacement has been a “can kicked down the road.”

“Almost as soon as we discovered the problem, the Mayor wanted to get it done,” said Newark Water & Sewer Director Kareem Adeem. He led the replacement program and $120 million in other infrastructure improvements: massive filtration systems, environmental technologies at treatment plants, and shoring up the water mains delivering water throughout the City. “All through the pandemic, we have never stopped working,” Adeem offered.

Of all the events in 2020 for which Newark made positive news, perhaps none was as publicly dramatic as the water turnaround. Just 14 months ago, as Mayor Baraka handed out bottled water to concerned residents, some members of the press unfairly labeled the City as “another Flint.” Even early critics now cite Newark as a model city for lead abatement, and the press gushes about Newark’s rapid water improvements.

Newark’s water story is a clear example of the Mayor’s Newark Forward values. His vision of a healthier and safer city through effective and efficient planning, with failure not being an option, is within view.

Replacement of 15,500 lead service lines in Newark is complete. By the time this magazine is published, that number will be nearer to 16,000 as crews replace 75 to 100 lines a day. The Mayor’s commitment to rid the City of one of America’s most pressing health concerns moves ahead at breakneck speed.

The project’s acceleration came just over a year ago when Mayor Baraka and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo struck a deal for the County to float a $120 million bond. The Mayor planned to repay the bond with $155 million owed the City by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Another critical piece was Mayor Baraka’s introduction of a city ordinance that would allow the City to replace private property lines without the owner’s consent. This regulation would ensure the 74 percent of Newark residents who rent the same access to clean and safe drinking water as private homeowners.

“We knew trying to track down landlords would slow the progress immensely,” the Mayor recalled. “We had to get access when construction crews were on the street for the project to be done efficiently.” As a result, crews move forward in an organized fashion: Advance teams sign up residents and gain access, crews dig and replace the lines, another unit follows and repairs the street.

As an added benefit, Mayor Baraka’s edict directs contractors to train and hire Newark workers for the well-paying, union construction jobs. So far, 60 Newark residents are now working on the crews.

Meanwhile, as workers replaced lines, new treatments in the impacted water system tested below or near acceptable levels. 40,000 free water filters the City handed out to residents, complete with education on their correct usage, proved 99 percent when directions were followed.

This moved Erik Olson of the National Resources Defense Council to tell a Star Ledger reporter, “…by completing the work replacing all lead service lines, optimizing the water treatment, and ensuring filters are being used properly, Newark may emerge as a role model for other communities struggling with lead in drinking water. We are also hopeful this effort could help pave the way for a statewide plan to help communities across New Jersey replace their lead service lines.”

Mayor Baraka had already lobbied for solutions to this national infrastructure problem. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and Representative Frank Pallone pushed federal bills to free up $100 million in clean water funds. President Trump signed the bill last October. Around the same time, Governor Phil Murphy proposed a $500 million comprehensive program to replace lead lines throughout the state and step-up lead paint abatement and education.

Ironically, Newark may not get much, if any, of the funding. The Mayor will have solved Newark’s lead problem before money becomes available. But that, of course, is the price of visionary leadership.