Water, water, everywhere, but what to do with it? It’s not an easy question, actually. You would think that a good, soaking rain would be the ideal way for the ground to get a nice hearty drink. And for the most part, you’d be right. But not where impenetrable layers of manmade groundcover like paved roads, playgrounds, and building slabs exist.

The more paved, the more urban an area becomes, the less the actual earth in that area is able so drink up the rain. Rather than rain filtering into the ground and purifying, it backs up in the streets and quickly gets funneled into rivers and streams. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that along the way, the water picks up some unseemly friends.

“If you’ve got one gallon of sewage and 10 gallons of rainwater,” says Andy Kricun, “you’ve got 11 gallons of sewage.”

Kricun is the executive director of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, which  treats 55 to 60 million gallons of wastewater per day in the county’s 37 municipalities. In Camden City alone, the CCMUA treats about 10 million gallons a day, half of what it used to treat when the city’s industrial enterprises were all up and running and the population was higher. But on a heavy-rain day, the operation can see those millions of gallons multiply several times.

This, of course, means that if too much water backs up in the streets, where the CCMUA’s collection systems can’t gulp fast enough, Camden isn’t sending millions of gallons of just rainwater into rivers and streams and lakes.

The solutions? One of them is to just unpaved the ground. Another is to change the mission of what a municipal water utility is in the environmentalism sphere — two things Kricun and the CCMUA are doing to help mend what years of poor foresight have done in old cities all over the country.

Kricun will be one of four speakers at PlanSmartNJ’s Water Quality Management Plan Policy Briefing, “New WQMP Rules: How Will They Be Applied?” on Thursday, January 19, at 9 a.m. at the Mid Jersey Chamber of Commerce, 423 Riverview Plaza in Trenton. Kricun will join moderator Neil Yoskin, an attorney at Cullen & Dykman at 213 Nassau Street, and speakers Colleen Kokas, director of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection; Ray Ferrara of Kleinfelder; and Mirah Becker of the Middlesex County Planning Board. Cost: $70. Visit www.plansmartnj.org or call 609-393-9434.

Kricun grew up in Gloucester City, where he still lives with his wife and twin 14-year-old daughters. His mother, a secretary, taught him the value of doing the right thing and trying to be a good person, he says. When he went to college, he knew he wanted to do something good for the world. “I thought it would be through volunteer work,” he says.

Turns out, he ended up happily tripping into a great outlet for himself. Kricun earned his bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Princeton in 1985 and started applying for jobs. The first one that came through was as an engineer at the CCMUA. He immediately realized that he was in an ideal position.

“When I got here, I really fell in love with the mission,” he says. “I never would have guessed that I would have stayed this long, but if you can make a living and make a difference while you’re making a living, that’s a blessing.”

Thirty years and a lot of “sheer endurance and tenacity” later, he says, he is the executive director of the CCMUA, guiding a rethink of what it means to be responsible for the health of such a major and ubiquitous natural resource.

The old ways. The new direction in which Kricun is moving the CCMUA — the same direction he says other water utilities can follow — is away from simply meeting the regulations. Not long ago, the CCMUA would be content with mere compliance with the rules. As long as nobody exceeded a level of something bad, nobody got fined, and everyone was happy. If the state DEP said that water could have up to 30 parts per million of solids, it was generally accepted that 29 ppm was just fine.

But, Kricun says, water utilities are in the best position to become environmental stewards by setting their own standards. The CCMUA today no longer shrugs off 29 ppm as good enough.

“Now we’re at 3 ppm,” he says. Multiply that but the millions of gallons a day that goes through the utility and it’s easy to see how many fewer solids end up in the county’s waterways.

New thinking. To a degree, this is at the heart of what the DEP’s new water management regulations are striving for. The state’s new water management plan, which went into effect in November, broadens the rules to allow individual towns and regions to follow as they see fit, while more clearly identifying where development and redevelopment can (and, of course, cannot) happen in the state.

For Camden County in particular, Kricun says, the new regulations don’t change much. The city of Camden is built out and 31 of the remaining municipalities in the county are more than three-quarters built out. The remaining five municipalities are the Pine Barrens, which operate under a much different set of rules, as the area is under federal protection.

So for most of the county, the issue isn’t what to do with all that open space, it’s what to redo with all those buildings and roads and structures and neighborhoods that have been there for decades. One thing Camden is doing in its urban areas, at the behest of the CCMUA, is creating rain gardens. Essentially, this means unpaving old roads or otherwise removing impervious and unused surfaces from buildings or infrastructure.

Rain gardens allow the rain to do what it’s meant to do, which is soak into the earth. Camden has about 50 of these, Kricun says. There are also two new riverfront parks where impervious surfaces have given way to environmental oases; three more such parks are expected to open up along the Delaware in Camden this year.

Projects such as these are contributing to fewer gallons per day of water to process for the CCMUA, and they are keeping more and more unseemly runoff from entering the county’s waterways. These kinds of projects are relatively simple and incredibly effective, Kricun says. And they’re the kind of things towns all over the state — especially older and more urban ones like Trenton and Newark, which were built long before anyone had an idea how much toxic waste automobiles and modern buildings could generate — can adopt to help keep waterways cleaner than even the state DEP says they need to be.

“No one thing will do it,” Kricun says. But every little bit helps.”

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