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Borough Officials Examine Solutions for Water Issues

By Rikki N. Massand l March 3, 2021


Rocky Hill Borough officials continue to examine solutions for their town’s aging water infrastructure, and the need to meet a new state mandate for drinking water quality. During a recent town hall, officials considered a potential $5 million investment in municipal water infrastructure.


The water issues have come to the forefront because of the state’s new contaminant regulations, according to Mayor Bob Uhrik. “But, we need to evaluate all aspects of the municipal water system,” he says. “We’ve assembled a team to evaluate financial aspects, water quality, water quantity, and the (overall water system). This will remain an open process and we want to hear the public’s ideas.”

Councilwoman Jenn Walsh, who leads the council’s Water, Sewer & Environmental Committee, also serves on the mayoral-appointed ‘Water System Subcommittee. One key water system expense, Walsh says, will be maintenance.


The costs of owning a municipal water system


Rocky Hill Borough owns its well and water utility system. It serves about 250 households, for a population of about 650 people. Infrastructure items that need to be addressed now: four water mains (main underground pipes in a system of pipes supplying water to an area) that were damaged in breaks in 2020; several 100-yearold leaky water mains; and fire hydrants need to be replaced, including six priority cases identified by the Rocky Hill Fire Dept for replacement immediately at: 10 Crescent Ave; 28 Montgomery Ave; 154 Washington Street; 10 Princeton Ave; 60 Princeton Ave; and 27 Toth Lane.


Cost estimates for replacing the water mains are $1 million per mile and the borough has about 3.25 miles of water mains. At this cost, the replacements likely would not occur all at once. The priority would be to address areas with routine and recurring water main breaks first. Also, the borough water tower is in need of maintenance, including the painting of both the exterior and interior of the water tower and replacing the ladders to the tower.


This repair work would cost about $650,000. An audit of water tower conditions was completed three years ago. Last September the borough’s ‘FAQ’ document on the water infrastructure noted that in four of last five years (to 2020) the cost of maintaining the water utility exceeded the revenues taken in by the utility. The over-cost ranged from $76,900 to $22,000. Rocky Hill revenue, in addition to collecting water utility bills from users, come from cellular service companies that lease space on the municipal water tower for antenna equipment. The town earns about $50,000 a year from this, and it is a way of reducing the overall tax burden on residents.


A second water well


Simultaneously the borough is planning to drill a second municipal water well. Municipalities are required to provide adequate water supply, not only for residential use but for any fire emergency. This is the driving factor for Rocky Hill Borough to explore locations for a second municipal water well. The well would need to be on borough-owned land, and identifying an ideal parcel has been nearly impossible. The Green Acres tract at the end of Princeton Avenue was considered, but Green Acres tracts would not be allowed by the NJDEP. Borough officials are instead pursuing a second well adjacent to the site of the current well, as the water system subcommittee says this is “the best path forward.”


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Should Rocky Hill sell its water utility?


With so much work needed on the Rocky Hill water system — and the cost to the average resident still unknown — would it be more cost-effective for residents if the borough were to sell the system to a third party (potentially New Jersey American Water or Aqua New Jersey). Rocky Hill is organizing an Asset Management Plan and Inventory of its water system to determine its overall value and the current and future debt service in relation to its revenues.


Water system subcommittee


In the meanwhile, members of the Rocky Hill Water System Subcommittee are continuing to explore all aspects of the Rocky Hill water system. Members include: Councilwoman Jenn Walsh; new Councilwoman Susan Bristol; Water System Supervisor Tim Lesko; the borough engineer; borough attorney Jolanta Maziarz; resident advisor William Hallman (a Rutgers professor and the husband of Councilwoman Connie Hallman); hydro-geologist Matt Mulhall; and Mayor Robert Uhrik. The mayor described Mulhall as a groundwater expert who has studied the local system since the 1980s: “he knows about our water system and its problems in the past, and we’re thankful he is with us as we work on the issues that we now have to tackle.”


PFAS contamination


In 2020 NJDEP passed enforceable regulations for two PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS, of 70 parts per trillion individually or when concentrations are combined. While the borough is not currently out of compliance, the new and stringent regulations go into effect at the end of 2022. All public water systems must begin monitoring for PFOA and PFOS within the first quarter of 2021; Rocky Hill was scheduled to begin testing for those two compounds in late February.


Walsh said the rolling average of four results would be the way the borough’s water supply is determined to be out of compliance (with levels too high). “Based on our historic monitoring of groundwater quality, our water was slightly above the regulated MCLs. That (PFOS) is what we have to put treatment in to remove from the water,” she said.


The DEP states that if a water system’s finished drinking water exceeds the MCL, it will be required to take necessary protective measures such as adding treatment systems or taking wells out of service. Results of testing will be made public through federally- required Consumer Confidence Reports that water systems send to customers and post to their websites,” she said.


Steps to treat the borough’s water could include the Ion Exchange treatment, where ‘a prefabricated pod’ could be installed in the footprint of the water treatment site. The Ion Exchange treatment would have a lower installation cost and smaller footprint, but a higher cost for the filtration that would need to be changed about every three years: ion-exchange polymer, or media, that treats for PFOS.


The borough has also been considering treatment through Granulated Activated Carbon (GAC) filtration. Walsh says this option carries a higher up-front installation cost, “due to the size of the tanks that are required for the treatment, as well buildings that would need to be erected to house those tanks, which would need to be climate-controlled.” She says GAC filtration yields good results for water quality.


Resident Ivor Taylor was described by Walsh as “the genius behind Rocky’s Hill’s water treatment system installed in the 1980s to deal with our TCE contamination issue.” (TCE is a solvent commonly used as a degreaser to clean metal parts and to manufacture a variety of products.) Over 35 years later, Taylor is still active on the municipal water system issue, and called in last month to state GAC is “yesterday’s news” and that Ion Exchange must be pursued, with revolutionary progress in this method and its science over the last five years, “with fantastic, complicated resins and great collection efficiency” in treating contaminated water.


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Taylor has been in contact with Mayor Uhrik about using the Horsham, PA, Water & Sewer Authority’s Ion Exchange program as a model for Rocky Hill. Horsham experienced PFAS contamination because of their location next to a Naval Air Base. Rocky Hill’s level of contamination was just above the NJDEP standard, but Horsham’s was off the chart. The subcommittee is looking into Ion Exchange and modular systems that Dr. Taylor identified. Mayor Uhrik said the federal government as well as Pennsylvania DEP helped with the funding of the Horsham system. Subcommittee member Hallman noted the subcommittee “clearly agrees” with the strong potential for Ion Exchange as remediation.


Funding the improvements


A dose of good news — perhaps the U.S. Department of Agriculture could help Rocky Hill with grants or low-interest loans, says Committeewoman Walsh. An example of a USDA loan she noted carried a 1.75 percent interest rate over a 40-year period. Walsh says she has data on the $13 million in funding the USDA distributes throughout New Jersey. Also, Walsh says the water subcommittee is also looking at five to seven other towns to benchmark how those towns are meeting the new drinking water standards, and the regular maintenance of their water infrastructure. Mayor Uhrik’s research on the water systems of these municipalities notes that some towns have made the decision to outsource system ownership to a company such as New Jersey American Water or Aqua New Jersey. Others, such as nearby Hopewell, uses a mixed approach. The town has a larger population to serve than Rocky Hill, but it is supplementing its municipal supply with purchasing extra water from a large water utility while maintaining some of their wells. Perhaps Rocky Hill could use a similar mixed approach?


What the future holds


A future Rocky Hill water system town hall is expected to be scheduled, and would include details on proposals from third-party water utilities, including “their vision and typical process” for assuming ownership of a municipal water system. “The proposals would cover taking ownership of all the aforementioned aspects of the water system, supply, the hydrants, and water mains, and all the water treatment,” Walsh said. The borough has an email address for residents who have questions: water@rockyhill-nj.gov.

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