Government serves many purposes. As former governors, we led debates about what programs, priorities and initiatives it should undertake, but at the core of government is the ability to conceive of and carry forward bold, transformative projects that provide broad benefit to citizens. Few things are as transformative as ensuring access to clean water.

We turn the faucet on and water comes out. Water travels down the drain and out of sight. Many of us never think much about it, but there is a whole network of pipes, drains and equipment that is involved in delivering clean water and transporting wastewater and stormwater away. These systems only really find their way into focus when we experience a flood or sewage backup, have to purchase bottled water because of lead contamination, or have no service because of water main breaks.

Far too many New Jerseyans have to contend with the consequences of deteriorating water infrastructure today. For those fortunate enough to not have felt the impact of water quality issues, trouble is right around the corner. New Jersey’s water infrastructure is in bad shape.

For perspective, New Jersey loses, by some estimates, 130 million gallons of treated drinking water every day through leaky pipes. In some places, the pipes and structures that carry water to homes and businesses have not been upgraded since the Civil War.

Too many children cannot safely drink water from the tap in their schools and homes due to lead contamination. There are roughly 350,000 lead service lines in New Jersey that need to be replaced by 2031.

In some towns, entire drinking water wells have had to be shut down due to contamination from forever chemicals like PFAs, leading to higher water bills. They are called forever chemicals because they stay in the human body forever.

Sewage backs up into streets, homes and businesses from aging combined sewer systems and our stormwater infrastructure cannot handle the increasing flow from climate change-driven extreme weather, leading to more catastrophic floods.

The water infrastructure challenges we face require significant investment, but the cost of inaction today is incalculable. Of course, the government is constrained by finite resources and political will, but government is at its best when it mobilizes to recognize and leverage rare opportunities.

This year, New Jersey has a once-in-a-generation chance to expand clean water infrastructure funding using the remaining American Rescue Plan dollars. Seizing this opportunity will have an enormous impact on the lives of every New Jersey resident, not only ensuring access to clean drinking water and waterways but also bolstering affordability.

To be clear, the Murphy administration and the New Jersey State Legislature have made progress on water infrastructure, but the state still faces a nearly $6 billion clean water funding gap over the next five years. The longer we wait, the more costly these essential upgrades will be.

The impact will be felt by hardworking New Jerseyans through unaffordable water and sewer bills. An additional investment of $1.2 billion from New Jersey’s share of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) this year would supercharge the clean water infrastructure funding already received from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and put New Jersey on a stronger footing to close the funding gap.

The expanded funding will make it possible to tackle more projects like replacing lead service lines, keeping chemicals out of our drinking water, and upgrading combined sewer systems and stormwater infrastructure–projects that will have the added benefit of creating good-paying jobs. Further, this funding will help build capacity for municipalities to identify and plan projects effectively and efficiently, while reducing rate hikes for New Jerseyans who are already struggling to pay high water and sewer bills.

Perhaps, most importantly, additional ARP dollars combined with other sources of funding will have a multiplier effect, enabling the state to leverage it to unlock loans and other mechanisms to finance clean water projects. This all adds up to a brighter, more resilient future for New Jersey.

There are few priorities that impact the health of our families, quality of life, economy and affordability in the way that access to clean water does. The governor and state legislature have an opportunity to make a bold, life-changing investment in clean water this year. New Jersey cannot afford to wait when it comes to clean water.

Gov. Christine Todd Whitman served as governor from 1994 to 2001. Gov. James J. Florio was governor from 1990 to 1994. Both former governors serve as honorary co-chairs of the Jersey Water Works collaborative.