A conversation with Andy Kricun, Executive Director and Chief Engineer of Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, NJ

Andy Kricun has been the Executive Director and Chief Engineer of Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) since 2011 and prior to that he served as the Deputy Executive Director starting in 1996. CCMUA is a regional authority that operates an 80 million gallon per day wastewater treatment plant and a large regional sewer system that services over 500,000 customers in southern New Jersey, including the City of Camden and 36 suburban towns. Under Andy’s leadership, in 2010 CCMUA implemented an innovative Stormwater Management and Resource Training Program (SMART), which utilizes green infrastructure as a tool to protect public health by preventing combined sewage overflows, and was intentionally designed to provide co-benefits such as creating green jobs and public parks in an economically distressed community.

WaterNow caught up with Andy last week to discuss the success of CCMUA’s SMART program and how other utilities, with similarly constrained resources, can scale-up their green infrastructure programs.

 

Why did the CCMUA decide to invest in green stormwater infrastructure (the SMART program)?

The City of Camden has an antiquated combined sewer system (CSS) that’s very under designed and dates back to the 19th century in some places. Then you layer on top of that the fact that the City of Camden is one of the most economically distressed communities in the country, with a citywide average median household income of $26,000 and an unemployment rate of 9.8%. So, the City doesn’t have the resources to upgrade their CSS.

During almost every meaningful rain event, we see that there’s sewage from the CSS going into streets, parks, people’s basements, or over flowing into the river. It’s a public health and a social justice issue. And it’s been happening for a really long time. Even though we don’t own the City of Camden’s sewer system, we can’t say that we’re accomplishing our mission to protect the environment and public health if we don’t do our part to try to address Camden’s CSS problem.

That’s the main reason why we’ve implemented green infrastructure to depave the city, soak up as much stormwater as possible, and also provide green amenities to Camden residents. Basically, our initiatives are focused on making Camden cleaner and greener.

 

What types of green stormwater infrastructure solutions did CCMUA implement?

Our goal is get multi-purpose, triple bottom line benefits from green infrastructure. Mainly, we’ve been greening old, abandoned industrial sites and we’re trying to get a win-win by applying for brownfield funding for remediation to turn these sites into healthy spaces. For example, we took an old factory on the river that had been abandoned since the mid-90s and used a State Revolving Fund (SRF) loan to create a river front park. We acquired the property, demolished the factory, removed 6 acres of impervious surface right along the Delaware River, removed all of the contaminated, radioactive soil running into the river, and capped and transformed it into a 6-acre riverfront park. We then joined that park with another park nearby so that we now have a total of 15 acres of riverfront park created from this abandoned factory. The Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) awarded us one of the 10 best uses of the State Revolving Fund across the country for this project.

In addition to public parks, we’ve installed rain gardens and cisterns in the community and permeable pavement in different schools. We also have a program for Camden residents where we’ll install rain barrels in residents’ yards for free. So far, we’ve installed about 200 rain barrels.

If you look at your mission as wanting to do the most you can for the neighborhoods and communities you’re serving, then your lane widens a lot so that the wastewater utility can be looking at trash clean-up. We’re look for as many opportunities as we can do to widen our lane while still staying within it.

 

How did CCMUA finance these programs?

The biggest percentage of funding for these programs comes from the State Revolving Fund. We’re able to receive SRF funding for grey and green infrastructure. Luckily, in New Jersey the State Revolving Fund is very robust and they act off of principal forgiveness, which is like a grant in a sense because you don’t have to pay off the whole loan.

We use a very collaborative approach to funding and implementing these projects and have a lot of partners. The William Penn Foundation funded our rain barrel program and the Trust for Public Lands worked with us to help fund a school rain garden project. We’ve also received open space funding from the county of Camden and project support from Rutgers University. We formed the Camden Collaborative Initiative in 2013 and have over 60 environmental and community service nonprofit partners working with us on various projects.

And this goes beyond just green infrastructure. We’re working on brownfield remediation, reducing illegal dumping, and removing trash from city streets that washes into the sewer and back into our treatment plant or the river. Because Camden is such an economically distressed community there are a lot of neighborhoods without trash cans on city blocks. We’re partnering with the local trash incinerator to put out trash cans in neighborhoods to help eliminate this issue.

 

What is Camden’s estimated cost-savings from investing in green stormwater infrastructure?

The City received an estimate from the state about 5-8 years ago that it would cost a billion dollars to separate Camden’s sewer system. I would estimate that we’ve spent about 100 million dollars in total on green and grey infrastructure because we’ve upgraded the sewer system and our wastewater treatment plant to receive more flow and we’ve installed 125 acres of green infrastructure so far. According to the modeling that our consultant has done, by 2020 these measures will eliminate 90% of the flooding in Camden at 10% of the cost to replace the CSS. By the end of 2020, we’ll have eliminated flooding up to a 1-inch storm and we’ll have significantly reduced overflows.

No one wants to spend ten times the amount of money to address an issue, no matter how affluent the city or utility. But in a city like Camden, it's really crucial to do this work as affordably as possible. And a point I'd like to make is that if we can do this here in Camden, then really anybody can do it and should do it.

This is not all our own innovation, a lot of these strategies were borrowed and adapted from other practitioners. This gives me an opportunity to mention something that I'm really excited about. One of the things I'm working on with the US EPA Office of Wastewater in DC, and a number of other collaborators, is the National Wastewater Peer-to-Peer Initiative. The goal of this initiative is a 50 state peer-to-peer program in which utilities with sufficient capacity will help utilities and municipalities that are resource strapped. The point is to lower the barriers and to promote free knowledge sharing to make it easier for other utilities to replicate strong programs.

 

As you approach the 10 year anniversary of the SMART program, is CCMUA done implementing your green infrastructure solutions?

Definitely not. For one thing, there's more greening to do because we want to minimize flooding and overflows and the greener the City is, the better. Beyond the stormwater benefits, we also want to create as many public parks, open spaces, and waterfront access as possible for our residents. One of our partners, the Trust for Public Land, wants to make sure Camden is a city where every resident lives no more than a 10-minute walk from a public park.
Also, at this point we’ve created five riverfront parks and sixty rain gardens and in most cities the sewer authority would turn over the management of those parks to the City. However, Camden doesn’t have the resources for a Parks Department so we have to maintain all of the green infrastructure we create. We created a program funded with a 50% grant for this program from AmeriCorps, at no extra cost to our ratepayers, called PowerCorps where we work with at-risk youth between 18 and 25 to maintain our parks and green space. These young men and women may have some kind of minor criminal record or they might not have a high school diploma. But they’re not criminals, they’re at risk. This is a 6-month program that provides youth participants with a full-time job, life skills training to help them with the issues that made them at risk to begin with, credentials, and job placement. We're now in our 4th year and 240 young men and women have gone through our program.

 

Why do you think that sustainable water management in Camden and in New Jersey more broadly is so important?

I know there are some people that don't believe in climate change, I'm not one of them, but if I'm speaking to an audience where there might be a mixture of views on climate change I approach it this way - we’ve had a number of extreme storm events in the recent past from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, to Sandy in New Jersey, to Harvey in Houston, and Maria in Puerto Rico. Whether you believe in climate change or not, we can all align on climate history. We've seen that our current water infrastructure is not adequate to meet the climate, as it is right now. Even if it doesn’t get worse, our infrastructure is already inadequate to handle extreme weather events.
In order to protect the public and to protect the rivers and streams that we rely upon, it's essential to take these sustainability steps to reduce combined sewage flooding. And if we have to do that, then we might as well do it in a way that has the maximum benefit to the communities that we serve. Sure, it's a good idea to put in an underground tunnel that captures stormwater but 90% of the time that tunnel will be empty and not helping anyone. If you can find a way to put in green infrastructure with multiple community benefits, then you're doing your job and doing it in a way that's optimally beneficial for the community that you serve.

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