Medical experts tell us that the best defense against the coronavirus (and many other illnesses) is to wash our hands with soap and water.These days, the minute we walk in the house, we head to the sink for a vigorous scrub.

We also rely on running water for drinking, cooking, sanitation and hygiene every day; sheltering at home 24/7 only heightens its importance. But not everyone has this basic service. Low-income customers and individuals out of work are at the greatest risk of being unable to afford to pay their water bills — and, until recently, at greatest risk of water shutoff. Some have access, but risk lead poisoning from contaminated tap water, which can impair children’s brain development, lower their IQs and cause behavioral disorders.

Lack of access to clean water makes people sick, spreads the virus, and endangers the broader public health.

The pandemic has highlighted just how essential clean water is to fighting disease. We depend on committed water and sewer utility workers to show up at work despite the risk of exposure, to keep water flowing into our homes and keep sewage out of our rivers. Meanwhile, COVID-19 threatens these systems’ financial health due to often-significant declines in revenue. Now more than ever, we can’t take these systems for granted.

That’s why the collaborative that we co-chair, Jersey Water Works, is pushing for affordable, clean water for everyone along with measures to sustain the state’s drinking water and wastewater systems.

Last month, a Jersey Water Works committee sent recommendations to the Murphy administration to help address the inequitable public health, safety, economic and social impacts of COVID-19 throughout the state during and immediately following the outbreak.

Recommendations sent to Murphy administration

The recommendations would first ensure that everyone can access water by extending the suspension of water shutoffs until 120 days after the end of the declared health emergency, waiving late fees, reconnecting service, and helping low-income water users pay arrears after the shutoff moratorium ends. Where necessary, emergency stations would distribute water to people still experiencing shutoffs. These recommendations build on Gov. Murphy and state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner McCabe’s announcement on March 31 that 100% of the state’s water systems had committed to voluntarily halting all service shutoffs throughout this emergency.

The recommendations also proposed a relief program for water and wastewater utilities. State leaders could use a portion of available state and federal COVID-19 relief funds to offset water and wastewater utilities’ lost operating revenues. And they urged New Jersey’s congressional delegation to seek funds in the next federal stimulus bill. Finally, the committee identified ways for the state government to support utilities in reducing costs.

Of course, COVID-19’s impact on clean water extends across all 50 states. Jersey Water Works joined the US Water Alliance and hundreds of organizations in support of four guiding principles to secure the nation’s water future. They are to:

  •  ensure water is reliable and affordable for all
  •  strengthen water utilities of all sizes
  •  close the water access gap for those without running water or wastewater services and
  •  fuel economic recovery by investing in water systems.

Closing the water infrastructure investment gap would create more than 1.5 million American jobs, more than the entire employed workforce in 20 states. It would generate over $260 billion in economic activity annually, which exceeds the gross domestic product generated by 28 states.

COVID-19 has also exposed some of our young children, now home all day, to greater danger from lead poisoning. Federal and state action could begin to protect their health immediately by funding practical solutions recommended by Jersey Water Works, and within 10 years the risk of lead in drinking water would be virtually eliminated. Gov. Murphy and legislative leaders have embraced this approach, and Newark’s remarkable progress in replacing over 10,000 lead service lines demonstrates that it works. What’s needed now is a federal and state stimulus package that would address lead poisoning and simultaneously jump-start the economy.

Water connects us all. This is especially true during a pandemic when everyone needs clean running water to stay healthy and to protect ourselves and others from infection. New Jersey’s water systems are essential to our communities — they cannot fail. Our state and federal government must ensure their health in order to help assure each of ours.