Wastewater Utility Puts Community First

Utility collaborates with local groups to improve residents’ quality of life

Wastewater Utility Puts Community First

Joe Myers

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In 2011, the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority helped build a rain garden on a former “brownfield” parcel of land where an abandoned gas station once stood in the disadvantaged Waterfront South neighborhood in Camden, New Jersey.

The work was performed under the auspices of a group the utility formed called the Camden SMART Initiative, or Stormwater Management and Resource Training, a collaboration between the city, the utility and other public and private groups and agencies. The organizations were united around a common goal: Build “green” stormwater infrastructure projects that would help remediate the effects of urbanization on the area’s waterways.

Within a couple of years, the SMART initiative morphed into the Camden Community Initiative, a solutions-oriented partnership between governmental, nonprofit, private and community-based agencies and groups with even bigger collective ambitions: improve the environment, health and quality of life for residents of Camden, an environmentally and economically distressed city.

“A one-time project became something much bigger and better,” says Scott Schreiber, executive director of the CCMUA. “That rain-garden project went so well that we decided to figure out how to help out Camden in a multitude of different ways, such as reducing air pollution, stopping illegal dumping and other things.”

In 2016, the CCI received an Environmental Champion award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, given to groups that represent exemplary public-private partnerships.  

Serving the greater good

The CCMUA’s community outreach efforts offer a valuable lesson for other utilities nationwide: By establishing themselves as so-called “anchor” institutions, utilities can work with diverse groups of stakeholders and make a significant positive difference for the people who live in the communities they serve.

“In New Jersey, we’re considered a model utility because of our ongoing commitment to societal and environmental issues,” Schreiber says. “We’re an example of what good government can be.”

“The CCMUA has been a true leader in this area in terms of understanding and analyzing underground infrastructure from a completely different perspective,” says Joe Myers, chief operating officer of the Camden Community Partnership, a grassroots nonprofit group that’s essentially the backbone of the CCI, providing staffing and administrative services. “They’re looking at the infrastructure through the lens of future generations.

“The CCMUA also challenges all of its partners to evaluate infrastructure from a generational perspective.”

Schreiber says his predecessor, Andy Kricun, was instrumental in the CCMUA’s outreach efforts that led to the formation of the CCI.

“He certainly deserves a lot of credit for all of this,” he says.

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The utility didn’t always have such a sterling reputation. The utility was not considered a good neighbor, especially after the late 1970s, when it expanded an existing wastewater treatment plant in the middle of the Waterfront South neighborhood so it could handle all the wastewater from about three dozen communities. The ensuing foul odors from the Delaware No. 1 Water Pollution Control Facility, which now treats 58 million gallons of wastewater per day, posed a severe hardship on residents, Schreiber says.

Residents vehemently opposed the expansion, just as they opposed the decision to site a prison there (now demolished) and a trash-incineration plant. Those projects represented ongoing environmental injustice, with the poverty-stricken neighborhood serving as a dumping ground for unwelcome projects.

“We needed to change from being viewed as bad actors to being an integral part of environmental solutions for Camden,” Schreiber notes. “Our very existence was an environmental justice issue.”

Slowly but surely, however, the utility stepped up its game. Around 1999, it spent more than $50 million on odor control technology at the wastewater treatment plant.

“That got us to what I would call a neutral place, where we were no longer hated by the community because we were doing what’s to be expected by a good neighbor,” he says.

“Then came the realization that by using state revolving funds and by partnering with other entities, the CCMUA could actually benefit the city and address various needs it didn’t have the wherewithal to handle itself.”

The utility also used a grant from Camden County to turn an abandoned industrial site along the Delaware River into Phoenix Park. Completed in 2017, the park provides riverfront access to residents and includes green infrastructure that mitigates flooding by capturing 5 million gallons of stormwater annually.

Helping disadvantaged youths

Furthermore, the utility established a Green Ambassadors program, which provides five-week summer internships for 10 to 20 high school students who work on CCI green-infrastructure projects. More than 45 students have “graduated” from the program.

It also established a PowerCorps Camden (an offshoot of AmericCorps) that increases economic opportunities for up to 60 disadvantaged “at-risk” youths a year by hiring them to maintain various green infrastructure projects.

“These programs help break down barriers to employment and foster economic opportunities, while simultaneously transforming Camden into a healthier, greener, more sustainable city,” according to a report from the US Water Alliance.

In addition, the CCI, in conjunction with the CCMUA’s SMART program, has built 49 green infrastructure projects throughout Camden that capture and naturally filter more than 60 million gallons of stormwater a year that otherwise would contribute to combined-sewer overflows, Schreiber and Myers say.

The CCI team also has distributed 223 rain barrels to Camden residents, planted 1,458 trees, engaged 4,000 community members, hosted 33 sustainability events and workshops and collaborated with more than 40 project partners in developing green infrastructure projects and programs. And more than 100 residents have joined the Adopt-A-Drain program, in which they clear debris from storm drains to reduce flooding and water pollution, Myers notes.

“We’re extremely pleased to be able to engage residents and improve their quality of life,” he says. “I’d say the idea of a collaborative, multi-disciplinary team looking at addressing stormwater management in an urban environment is very unique.

“Usually it’s just a municipality working on problems, but here we’re bringing together many resources and a lot of knowledge to the table to better effectuate change,” Myers says. “That’s the strength of this initiative.”

A dramatic turnaround

Schreiber says it’s been extremely gratifying and rewarding to see the progress that’s been made through the CCI’s efforts.

“I really am thrilled because it has had substantive impacts on the city and turned attention to issues we were concerned about,” he says. “When you start thinking about the city and its needs, it’s amazing how you can find ways to benefit the people who live here.”

From the green stormwater infrastructure projects that help mitigate flooding to the internships (four interns recently were hired for full-time jobs with six-figure salaries) to a recent $2.6 million grant the CCMUA was awarded to address flooding in a Camden neighborhood, the utility is making a difference on many levels in the community. And the CCI is at the hub.

“FEMA came to us because they had extra funding and heard about what we were doing [through the CCI],” Schreiber says of the grant. “None of these things would’ve happened without that first rain garden in Waterfront South.”


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