From The Editor | October 29, 2015

Jersey Strong: A Q&A With Public Utility Commissioner Mary-Anna Holden

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

Commissioner Mary-Anna Holden has been on the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities since 2012. As a mayor and councilwoman of Madison, NJ for 14 years, Holden chaired the water and wastewater utilities. As a co-vice chair on the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Committee on Water, she is a leading influencer on the ways that municipalities across the country use and reuse water. Having seen firsthand the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy, she has a particular interest in improving our national infrastructure and preparing against potential natural disasters. Commissioner Holden spoke with Water Online to offer her take on the industry’s growing concerns, advice on how utilities can best work with regulators, and insight into the state’s public-private partnerships.

What do you consider to be your core responsibilities?

Well, I’m co-vice chair of the committee on water nationally. That’s part of my main responsibilities, and also having to drive the conversation and educate the rest of the board as to the national discussion that’s been going on for three years, about the water energy nexus. I also serve on the critical infrastructure committee. Obviously, water is a critical part of the infrastructure. Every day is a new challenge. It’s fun.

Beyond infrastructure, what other trends in the industry are of particular concern to you right now? What are you doing to mitigate those?

To me, the EPA is always throwing some kind of curve. Most of the things, the contaminants, that’s not our area. That goes to the Department of Environmental Protection. However, those things can keep you up at night, just concerns about having an infiltration of Cryptosporidium or something like that.

If there’s an emergent condition or a water supply concern, like something’s a significant non-complier, or there’s a historical problem as far as a reinvestment in the system… there’s new legislation that will allow municipalities to say, “Look, let’s just put out an RFP.” Yes, you can still go to a referendum if you really, really feel tied to your water system about it, or you can just go and find someone that’s qualified… Then, something that we haven’t used enough in our state, there has been the ability to have public-private partnerships… [where] someone else is managing [the public utilities]. And with the more successful municipalities, the industrial utility that’s taken over the system has continued to employ the same employees, given them better training, given them better equipment.

The other thing that I see, and every state is struggling with, I see energy efficiency through water efficiency as one of the ways we’re going to reach our goals; also, in the increase in anaerobic digestion and methane capture. We have one pilot project in New Jersey that’s been very successful, where they actually go to the restaurants and the communities and they take the fats, oils, and greases that would normally be trucked into a landfill and they feed it to the digester. That really increases the methane production with very little grit, very little sludge.

What do you see as the biggest obstacles to innovation in the water and wastewater industries?

I think the industry is willing to innovate. It’s not something we discourage, we certainly encourage it. We have a lot of pilot programs in New Jersey. In our clean energy program, we have something called the Edison Innovation Grant, where we have tried to spur innovation and work with the Economic Development Authority to find these little startups.

[Governor Chris Christie] said we were going to focus on wastewater plants in particular, because of the huge sewer overflows that we had in New York and New Jersey during Superstorm Sandy. We’ve got 19 cities in our state that have combined sewer overflow. What can we do to mitigate that? We’re looking at starting this green infrastructure, which is the least cost, but how do you address some of these other problems?

There are a lot of great ideas coming out. I’m inspired by some of them that I’ve seen in New York City and upper New York State. I would like to innovate, but sometimes it’s complimentary to just copy someone else.

There certainly isn’t any resistance [to innovation] from the executive branch, to try some things and experiment and move forward.

Are there particular opportunities for innovation that you see at the moment?

People don’t understand the value of water, because they don’t see it.  They just see what comes out of their tap and goes down their toilet. They don’t have the appreciation for everything that’s buried underground. That’s really something we have to ratchet up in the discussion. That’s, I think, the biggest frustration.

One of the good things I see going forward is the conversation about water reuse. Obviously right now, you take advantage of a horrible situation in California with the drought. This is an opportunity to really step up the discussion about water and water reuse. There’s a finite amount of water, and if you can reuse it beneficially, or you can use it in a smarter way, that’s the conversation that has to become mainstream.

How can regulators have an impact on the infrastructure crisis?

Having run a municipal system, I know that the tendency is for councils to say, “Well, if it’s making money, let’s take that money and we’ll use it against taxing, or having to raise taxes rather than putting it back into the system.” Regulator companies, you can’t do that. I think New Jersey, back in the mid-2000s, actually made it a practice and forced municipalities or small, private companies to consolidate.

Showing practicality, making sure someone is watching over them, you’re going to ensure that the infrastructure is up to speed, that you have an asset management program in place, and I think the new Water Infrastructure Protection Act is going to make it a little bit more palatable and easier for municipalities to consolidate their systems. Also, the public-private partnerships — that’s the only way you’re going to crack through this huge infrastructure cost.

How can utilities collaborate with regulators?

I certainly encourage people to join the committees of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and participate because the companies that are regulated have a presence there. They want to have access and be able to talk to you, not only regulators in their states, but in other states.

You have to have that informal collaboration, rather than adversarial. You know what’s going on and you can predict or see how other states have handled things. This is how you learn what trends are and what’s happening.

If a utility does find itself in violation of a regulation, what’s the ideal way to work with them and resolve that?

In my tenure, I haven’t seen any pushback by regulators. If we have problems, at least I always try not to bring it forward in a public hearing, but try to talk to staff.

I think that the best we can do, staff-wise, is to try and advise them. That’s the beauty of this Water Infrastructure Protection Act in New Jersey. You work with the municipality to help them find a qualified owner for their systems, that’s going to be able to alleviate these deficiencies, whether it’s management, financial, or just non-compliancy with critical problems, or they just don’t have access to the water supplies.