CALDWELL, NJ — After implementing a five-point action plan to avoid future disasters like the Orchard Square fire in 2016, which caused four Caldwell families to lose their homes as firefighters stood helplessly by due to a lack of water pressure in the neighborhood, the governing body of Caldwell recently provided information about the progress of each facet of that plan and work being done moving forward.

Prompted by the devastating house fire in November 2016 and similar issues—such as a “microburst” that overwhelmed the storm system in 2018 and caused flooding at several homes and businesses as well as violations notices from the New Jersey Department of Environment of Protection about the “lack of proper maintenance” of the Caldwell Wastewater Treatment Plant (CSTP)—a borough-wide study determined that more than half of Caldwell’s water system was “incapable of supplying sufficient supply and pressure to meet basic needs,” according to the borough.

In a message to taxpayers last week, the administration noted that the water and sewer systems within the Borough of Caldwell are not only “extremely old,” but have also “not received the kind of attention necessary to keep them in a first-class condition” for many years.

Sign Up for West Essex Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

When the current administration in Caldwell took office in 2019, the mayor and council members acknowledged that improving infrastructure was going to be essential to the long-term stability of the municipality. In consultation with Mott MacDonald, which the borough partnered with earlier this year for engineering services at the CSTP, the mayor and council reviewed previous analyses, commissioned additional studies and discovered what they described as a “sobering picture.”

“Without significant new investment, the water and sewer systems of the borough would continue to fail, upsetting normal life and dramatically affecting the market value of properties in the borough,” the administration said. “Who wants to buy a home which might burn down for lack of water pressure, flood because of inadequate storm drainage or fill with sewage because of an undersized or clogged water main?”

In order to avoid such disasters, the borough implemented a plan to:

  • Accelerate the replacement of inadequate water mains using the priorities determined in the prior study;
  • Identify the key causes of storm-water flooding and force those responsible to eliminate the problems at their source;
  • Bring the sewer treatment plant into regulatory compliance and assess the challenges to its capacity;
  • Repair major problems in the sanitary pipes and mains to eliminate backups and assure adequate service to all users; and
  • Establish a fair and equitable basis for the funding of infrastructure system costs that allocates those costs fairly both within the borough and among the borough and its partners in the sewer treatment district.

In the notice distributed to residents last week, the borough noted that progress has been made on all five facets of this plan and alluded to key highlights of the action plan moving forward.

  1. Water Mains: The Borough of Caldwell has received bids for upgrades to the first 50 percent of the water mains that have been identified as inadequate. The borough expects funding for the work to be approved this week, with the contracts to be awarded in May and work to begin in July. Work is expected to be completed by early 2021.
  2. Storm Flooding: According to the borough, several key causes of flooding have been identified, including inadequate maintenance of open streams and ditches used to carry out excess storm water and incorrect installation of underground utilities affecting the capacity of storm drains.

    The Borough of North Caldwell and its developer have acknowledged their problem, with correction expected this year. According to the Caldwell administration, the borough is working with the county and responsible private property owners to remove debris and blockages to correct stream flows. Additionally, PSEG has agreed to relocate a problematic gas main in Roseland Avenue that led to serious flooding on the west side of that roadway.
  3. Treatment Plant Repair: After more than a year of rehabilitation, which included repairs to 80 percent of the sand-filtering system, replacement of the ultraviolet disinfection apparatus and numerous other upgrades, the CSTP is now in full compliance with all regulations and operating at its highest capacity, according to the borough. 

    The administration explained, however, that this capacity “is only barely adequate, as studies have now shown that the system has an overwhelming problem with ‘infiltration and inflow’ (I&I)," or the entry of unwanted water into what is supposed to be a closed system. Providing some perspective, the borough explained that during a heavy rain, it is not unusual for the plant to receive more than 300 percent of the volume that it gets on a dry day.

    With most of the partner communities faced with the need to accept significant new residential development to meet state affordable housing requirements, the borough said projections indicate that the treatment plant will need to expand by at least 50 percent “just to meet that additional, court-ordered demand.”
  4. Sanitary Sewer Main Repair: Major repairs have been completed to the system’s largest sewer main, which carries waste along Passaic Avenue to the plant. According to the borough, the I&I analysis study has pinpointed the key locations generating the most significant inflows, and the follow-up study that was authorized earlier this year will provide a blueprint for how to most efficiently reduce those flows. Problems such as excess root intrusion into mains and incorrect connections have been identified and corrected along the way.
  5. Infrastructure System Funding: Noting that taking these actions is expensive, the administration assured taxpayers that the Borough of Caldwell is “extremely sensitive to the impact that such costs will have on [its] residents and businesses.” In order to assure that the burden is “kept to a minimum” and that it would be distributed as equitably as possible, the Caldwell governing body established two basic principles—“Regional Sewer Costs” and “Distribution of Local Costs”—to guide the financial plan for the water and sewer systems.

The borough noted that it changed its sewer billing practices to “make the bills be directly related to actual contribution to the sewer system.” As adopted, the borough explained that the new billing system “uses water meter readings from the prior first and fourth quarters, which are the periods least-affected by seasonal changes in water consumption from things like watering the lawn or washing the car.”

“The average of those two quarters is further adjusted to 70 percent of the metered amount, to reflect a reduction in the projected amount of water consumption that becomes sewerage,” the borough wrote in its letter to community members. “That projected amount is used as the basis for sewer billing for the next four quarterly billings.

“This change in sewer methodology is intended to make sewer billings more equitable, as they now are applied to all properties—including those that are exempt from property taxes—and they are based on quantified measurements that are closely related to the amount of sewerage flow generated by each property. Bills now reflect a fair allocation of the costs for sewer services provided to each property.”

According to the Borough of Caldwell, the current rates for water and sewer are expected to generate sufficient revenue to fund all projected operating and capital expenses for 2020.

The mayor and council members assured the community that they would review the financial condition of the water utility and sewer utility later this year to determine whether adjustments in the rates will be required to fund projected future costs.