Water Woes: What is Hoboken Doing to Fix Their System?

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Water Main Break Hoboken
August 28 water main break near Hoboken PATH station. Photo by Chris Fry/Jersey Digs.

Hoboken is known for a variety of attributes depending on who you ask, but one consistent negative the city has struggled with for many years is its water system. After a huge rash of water main breaks last month, the city has made several moves that officials hope will address the problem.

The city suffered no less than 18 water main breaks during August, a number Mayor Ravi Bhalla claims is astronomically high especially for a warm weather month. In a somewhat unique situation, Hoboken hasn’t actually managed their water in decades; the city entered into a contract in 1994 with United Water to run the system — a deal Suez Water inherited when they purchased that company a few years back.

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Under the initial 1994 deal, the water company was required to spend $550,000 per year on upgrades to the system, which has some of the oldest infrastructure in the state. An amendment negotiated in 2001, entered mostly to plug a municipal budget hole, reduced that number to just $350,000 per year. Both the city and Suez seem to agree that figure only covers the constant repairs if that.

The current agreement ends in 2024, but the city council took a step at their September 5 meeting to possibly terminate the deal early. They unanimously passed a resolution that wishes to seek new proposals for the operation, maintenance, and management of the city’s water system. The city will now draw up a Request For Proposal (RFP), which will be sent to the state comptroller, who has 30 days to comment on and approve it.

This will mark the second time in recent memory the city has attempted to redo their water pact. Former Mayor Dawn Zimmer negotiated a 2017 deal with Suez that would have included an average of over $1.8 million per year to be spent on capital investments. The agreement was pulled by the city council and never got a vote, in part due to an unexplained $8.3 million liability Suez claimed the city owed from the increasing water rates and improvement costs.

If the latest RFP is approved, the city can and will seek new bids to operate the water system. In addition, the council approved at their September 17 meeting $106,000 in legal and engineering contracts toward investigating whether there is any causal effect between a now-completed meter chamber project in southwest Hoboken and August’s water main breaks. The city had sued Suez to halt the project, and it’s worth noting that since work on it finished, there haven’t been any significant breaks.

There are other steps the city has taken to shore up what lies beneath; the ongoing Washington Street project has replaced 1.25 miles of water mains that run under the road, and Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher recently stated that Hoboken is in the process of finalizing approval for another 2.5 miles of water main repairs that are expected to begin in late 2018. But with over 41 miles worth of water mains throughout the city, nobody would dispute that it will be a long, costly, and disruptive process to fix everything.

Time will tell if a frigid war of words between Mayor Bhalla and Suez will eventually thaw and lead to contract negotiations, but other companies wishing to bid on running Hoboken’s water system might be able to take their shot later this year if the state approves the council’s Request For Proposal.

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