Board members of the Newark Watershed Conservation Development Corp., which oversaw the purification and distribution of water for approximately 500,000 customers throughout northern New Jersey, have voted to dissolve the agency after years of multiple investigations and public backlash.
This move could have a major impact on water rates for businesses, residents, and municipalities throughout Essex County and elsewhere. It caught many of the city leaders by surprise. Hefty increases could be seen by customers in their water rates over the coming years due to more than $500 million in estimated repairs that need to be done to the system.
Sussex, Passaic and Morris counties businesses and residents could also be affected by Monday’s vote because tens of thousands of acres of forest land and reservoirs will be managed by Newark.
City spokeswoman, Dreena Whitfield stated, “Mayor (Cory) Booker was informed that effective May 31, 2013, the Newark Watershed Conservation & Development Corp. will dissolve, shifting all of the city’s water treatment and supply activities to … the city of Newark’s water and sewer department.”
The watershed corporation, established in 1973 as a nonprofit agency to manage Newark’s reservoir system grew to become the absolute manager of the entire city’s water and sewer departments.
A $105 million operation, the city contracted the agency and paid close to $11 million annually for it to run the water and sewer utility.
35,000 acres of forests and reservoirs bought in the 19th century to provide clean water for the city will be under the agency’s management and they will be responsible for maintenance and security. The Pequannock treatment plant in West Milford is where water is treated and distributed to Newark and its surrounding communities and it will also be run by the agency.
The Star-Ledger is among several investigations over the past year and they suggest mismanagement, a lack of transparency and corrupt spending.
The Booker Administration has fought aggressively in the past to fight attempts to eradicate the nonprofit agency, even though they stated yesterday that the dissolution was welcomed.
A campaign to dissolve the agency was launched last year by the Newark Water Group – a coalition of residents – and to have it placed under city control. The City Council approved unanimously to dissolve the agency when the group submitted a petition with more than 5,000 signatures. The action was overturned by a judge soon after the Booker administration brought the matter to court.
Bill Chappel, a group member stated, “The Newark Water Group is gratified that the city has finally come to believe what we believe: that our water resources need to be directly under the control of our elected officials. As far as we’re concerned, it’s a great victory for democracy.”
As of yesterday, the reason behind the dissolution remained unclear. A legal challenge was about to undergo mediation and the agency was under investigation by the state comptroller. It has been argued in court that the agency was operating illegally and not within the boundaries of its bylaws by residents and Councilman Ras Baraka and Ron C. Rice.
The agency will lose their most powerful supporter when Booker leaves Newark to run for U.S. Senate in 2014.
Requests for comments went unanswered by the agency’s director, Linda Watkins-Brashear.
A series of emergency contracts to keep water flowing were given by the Booker administration, but for more than a year now, the contract that allowed the nonprofit agency to continue to run have been voted down by city council members.
The arduous task of building a viable water and sewer department will have to be faced by the city; finding a director will be the first step.