"It's an out of sight, out of mind kind of thing," Eschbach said. "But we've been trying for some time to figure out how to get people to understand what it takes to get water to them. And to be concerned about the aging infrastructure beneath them that delivers it."
Clean tap water has been a common and reliable commodity in most U.S. households since the 19th century - so long that not only is it taken for granted by most users but the infrastructure that delivers it to them is practically ancient.
So many of the thick, cast-iron pipes that create a zigzag water-delivery system below ground are so old - exceeding 100 years in some areas - that experts say that nowadays, every two minutes a water main breaks somewhere in the United States.
New Jersey American says that about 15 percent of the 9,000 miles of pipes it owns in the state - located in pockets from Bergen County down to Cape May County - are about a century old, while some are even older. That means the pipes are rapidly approaching the end of their problem-free life span, according to Suzanne Chiavari, vice president of engineering for the utility.
To combat what could be a growing problem, Chiavari said, New Jersey American Water is launching a multimillion-dollar effort called Community Pipeline Revival, aptly acronymed CPR, to accelerate renewal of the infrastructure, which supplies water to customers in more than 100 municipalities.
The utility will invest about $100 million this year alone in the improvements. Paying for the projects before mains break ultimately will save the company money, officials said. When the utility makes emergency repairs, it costs about $1,000 a foot; when it replaces pipe during a planned project, it costs about $100 a foot, they said.
"CPR will accelerate the rehabilitation and replacement of local pipelines and their associated components such as fire hydrants and valves," Chiavari said. "This will enhance our customers' water service reliability and water quality. These improvements will also help ensure that the necessary system flows and pressures are there when local firefighters need it 24 hours a day."
While the utility has been spending millions of dollars on such improvements over recent years, officials contend that without a concerted effort to replace them now, greater problems could occur.
"But those pipes are aging faster than we could replace them. CPR allows us to dramatically step up our efforts," Chiavari said.
Customers may see an increase in their monthly bills to pay for the improvements - about 30 cents a month. The utility must pay up front to plan the projects, construct them, and operate them before it can go to the state Board of Public Utilities to ask for a rate increase.
On average, New Jersey American residential customers pay about $50 a month - or one cent per gallon - for their water service, officials said.
Back on the beach, onlookers were a long way from thinking about water bills as they marveled at Gruber's expertise on the 10- by 10-foot sculpture, which they were invited to enter for an up-close look and to take pictures.
"It's really cool. . . . I've never seen anything like it before," said 7-year-old Katie Bach of Washington Township, Gloucester County, who had been digging her own sand castle several hundred yards away until she and her family became entranced with Gruber's work.
Gruber, of Northfield, who specializes in sand sculpting but works in other mediums, had never before built anything quite like the interactive sand trench and was amazed at the response from the public.
"Sand sculpting is magical. . . . It is a medium that has this beautiful, live action to it," Gruber said. "It's an interesting way of communicating without getting people's defenses up."
Gruber said he'd be surprised if his sand crewman, begun Wednesday, lasted until day's end before high tide washed it away.
Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at inquirer.com/downashore. Follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo.