SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — American Water, the nation’s largest publicly traded water and wastewater utility company, announced last week that it has been awarded the operation and maintenance contract for the South Orange Village water services, so villagers should be prepared for the upcoming service switch from the East Orange Water Commission to New Jersey American Water, which will take place Jan. 1, 2017.
At its July 11 meeting, the South Orange Board of Trustees approved Ordinance No. 2016-12 on second reading to approve the contract. This followed a drawn-out process that included a public hearing March 21.
South Orange’s water is currently provided by the EOWC, though that relationship will come to a close at the end of the year, when the contract expires and the village switches to NJAW. The decision to go with NJAW came for various reasons; not only has tetrachloroethylene been found in well No. 17, but the EOWC has also been mired in corruption scandals with EOWC officials being indicted for falsifying test results.
Following this scandal, the village has worked to find a partner that will remain on the right side of the law.
“We are painfully aware of the importance of having a good operator to run your system given the recent experience,” village Administrator Barry Lewis Jr. had said at the March 21 hearing.
The contract award, valued at approximately $10 million during the 10-year term of the contract, follows a period of negotiations after the company’s Contract Services Group was selected through a competitive process. American Water Contract Services is part of the company’s market-based American Water Enterprises subsidiary.
The contract includes operations and maintenance for the village’s 4,750 connections, 60 miles of water main, 600 hydrants, 3,000 valves, three storage tanks and one water supply well. Village officials have stressed, however, that South Orange will retain ownership of the system; NJAW is only responsible for its operations and maintenance.
“We are excited to partner with the village of South Orange through this contract,” Deborah Degillio, president of American Water Enterprises, said in a press release. “Through our operations, engineering and technology expertise, we are looking forward to working with the village in implementing system improvements to help ensure high quality service to the community.”
Village attorney Steven Rother explained March 21 that there will be two payment phases to NJAW’s management of the village water system. Phase I will include a one-time fee of $245,099, necessary to ensure a seamless transition on New Year’s Day 2017 and to make sure that everything is ready for the conversion from the EOWC to NJAW. Rother explained that the necessary pumping system and interconnections needed to switch water providers are covered in a second contract.
According to Trustee Walter Clarke, the village, American Water and engineering consultants at HDR Inc. are currently hard at work to ensure the transition goes smoothly.
“Near term transition projects include the construction of a booster pump station and a pipeline, which will bring the American Water supply to the village’s reservoir; a leak detection study; and hydrant repair and replacement,” Clarke told the News-Record. “Less visibly, but equally important, American Water is working with East Orange Water Commission on the transfer of customer accounts from EOWC’s system to American Water’s system.
“Over the next few years, we also plan to upgrade and repair most of the major elements of the water system using low-cost loans from New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust, which will be repaid via water revenues, not tax dollars,” Clarke continued. “These include above-ground assets like the Crest Drive storage tank, South Orange Avenue Reservoir and Brentwood Water Sphere, as well as a rehabilitation of well No. 17 to improve its output and put in place a granular-activated carbon filtration system to remove contaminants, including PFOAs and VOCs.”
VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, were found to be well No. 17 at levels exceeding New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection standards back in 2012, around the time EOWC officials were arrested for falsifying water results. Since then, the village has been managing the problem and ensuring that VOC levels, specifically of tetrachloroethylene, do not again exceed the NJDEP Protection standards. PFOAs, or perfluorooctanoic acid, were found in the well in early 2016; while PFOA is part of a family of perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, which have been linked to cancer and developmental problems in humans, Larry Hajna, a press officer with the NJDEP, previously told the News-Record that South Orange residents need not be overly concerned with the low levels in village water, though the levels exceed NJDEP standards.
As per Rother on March 21, Phase II of the contract pays $62,158 per month to NJAW to operate, control and maintain the system; provide daily inspections and maintenance of above-ground assets; perform leak detection on 20 percent of the village’s mains annually; test and inspect all hydrants with one-third to be flushed annually and at least 120 to be painted each year; inspect and exercise 20 percent of all valves annually; inspect and exercise the generators monthly; and perform meter readings and billing services.
“We are pleased to have formed this partnership with American Water, which is a well-respected water solutions provider for millions of people nationwide,” Trustee Howard Levison said in the release.
“This partnership will provide benefits to the village through increased efficiency of operations and leveraging of expertise as we look to make needed improvements to the system to provide continued reliability for our residents,” Clarke said in the release.
In a separate agreement in 2015, the BOT awarded a contract for bulk water sales to New Jersey American Water. The agreement also includes the construction of a new interconnect, booster station and other distribution assets, which are scheduled to be in place by Jan. 1, 2017, when NJAW takes over the water system from the EOWC.
And South Orange officials are confident that residents will see an improvement in their water when the transfer occurs.
“Customers can expect better water quality, softer water and improved service without a rate increase,” Clarke told the News-Record. “South Orange is committed to improving the quality of water and service delivered to our residents and American Water is a consistent award-winner in both of those areas. American Water supplies water to many of our neighbors, including Maplewood and West Orange, and is known for its proactive approach to service and maintenance. Our water infrastructure is largely unseen, taken for granted and yet vitally important, which makes proactive maintenance of the system particularly important.”
Clarke — along with Levison, who currently serves as chairman of the Finance Committee and as a member of the Public Safety and Planning and Zoning committees — has been vital in securing this contract with NJAW. At one time or another Clarke has led the following committees: Environmental Commission, Energy Policy Advisory Committee, Sustainable South Orange Committee and Community Emergency Response Team. Clarke also told the News-Record that, with the transfer, residents should expect to see various work crews around the village, inspecting, testing, repairing and upgrading various parts of the water system.
But Clarke is especially pleased about the prospect of softer water. Hard water contains a high level of minerals, whereas soft water has much lower levels; hard water has been known to be tough on water equipment, which can suffer breakdowns due to the high mineral content.
“I think softer water is a benefit that many of our residents will be able to directly appreciate,” Clarke told the News-Record. “The water we presently get from East Orange Water Commission is primarily well water whereas the water we will receive from American Water will primarily be surface, (or) reservoir, water. For comparison, American Water reports the hardness of water delivered to our area as typically between 140 and 160 parts per million, while EOWC reports their water hardness as typically around 320 parts per million.
“I won’t be throwing away my water softener, but I don’t think I will need to maintain it as often,” Clarke continued.
Residents with questions or concerns about the transfer can access additional information on the village’s new website, www.southorange.org, in the “water” section under “Our Community” at the top of the page. Questions not addressed there may be posed via email to email@example.com and will be answered by Clarke, Levison and Lewis; Clarke assured that the village will post any answers online.