In February, Gov. Cuomo announced the creation of a Statewide Water Quality Rapid Response Team charged with identifying and developing plans to swiftly address critical drinking water contamination concerns // Photo courtesy of NYS
Local leaders join in the call for funding critical to combat water main breaks, sewage overflows, business closures
ALBANY – As Gov. Andrew Cuomo prepares to unveil his 2017-2018 budget proposal, local officials are urging him to help communities rebuild aging drinking and wastewater infrastructure — by investing $800 million annually and establishing the state Water Infrastructure Improvement Act (WIIA) as a permanently budgeted line item. The act, due to sunset after the 2017-2018 fiscal year, gives the NYS Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) authority to provide grants to assist municipalities in funding drinking water and sewage treatment works projects focused on improving water quality and protecting public health.
Through WIIA, New York State has begun to provide communities the funding they need for water infrastructure projects to help providing clean, safe drinking water for all New Yorkers, but ongoing degradation of state water systems is projected to require additional billions to adequately accomplish that goal.
The EFC’s 2017 Final Intended Use Plan (IUP) states that, “the demand for EFC’s financial assistance is higher than ever, in part due to the renewed focus on water infrastructure issues.” All 62 counties in New York State have requested aid in water infrastructure improvement projects and, in 2017, it is estimated that the EFC will only be able to meet 14 percent of the identified need statewide.
Additionally, in a report titled “A Gathering Storm,” the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) identified $36 billion in unmet wastewater infrastructure needs over 20 years, with tens of billions more needed for drinking water infrastructure, according to the state Department of Health (DOH).
Local leaders appealing to Cuomo represent communities that have had to grapple with pipes that may be more than 100 years old, which has led to sewage overflows and water main breaks that damage streets, close businesses and schools, pollute our waters, and can harm public health — officials from Albany County, the cities of Albany, Troy, and Amsterdam, the village of Green Island joined local state legislators and environmental experts in exhorting the governor to significantly increase funding for water infrastructure in his upcoming budget.
“The time is now to invest in the state’s water infrastructure to ensure that we can help local communities meet their needs in the years to come,” said Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy. “It’s been a challenging year and we must work together to ensure we invest in our systems.”
“The issue of aging infrastructure continues to be a challenge for legacy cities like Troy and other communities across New York State,” said Patrick Madden, mayor of Troy, which has 145 miles of water lines with an estimated cost of $2 million per mile. “Support for programs like the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act has provided critically important funding for necessary upgrades to our city’s water and sewer network, including the planned replacement of a major water transmission line which serves Troy and several nearby Capital Region communities.”
“Segments of our sewer system date back to the early 1900’s, so investing in infrastructure projects makes a lot of sense,” Amsterdam Mayor Michael Villa said. “I believe the state should continue to lead on this issue by providing necessary funding to address aging infrastructure in small cities like mine, especially those that are facing financial difficulties.”
“In parts of Albany County, the water infrastructure is crumbling below our feet,” said Sean Ward, chairman of the Albany County Legislature. “We’ve reached a point where we must repair or replace it. We respectfully ask our state and federal leaders for assistance in helping to make our communities safe.”
“Too much of the core infrastructure, streets and neighborhoods are slowly decaying due to a lack of investment and long term strategic planning of Albany,” said President of the Albany Common Council Carolyn McLaughlin. “Our future ability to attract and retain residents is dependent on the stability of our critical infrastructure. Strengthening our roads and aging water infrastructure must be a top priority, and this priority can be advanced by the influx of much-needed funding. We cannot continue to let the bottom fall out of our city.”
Examples of Area Infrastructure Breakdowns:
- Last month, a water main break in Troy closed office buildings and a dormitory. Earlier this year, a massive water main break closed businesses, streets, and flooded homes in Troy, and disrupted clean water access to 135,000 residents in nine municipalities.
- A water main break and partial failure of a 145-year-old brick sewer swallowed an SUV in midtown Albany. The break caused road closures for six weeks, caused extended mandatory water restrictions, and interrupted water sales to another community.
- Last month, heavy rains caused 400,000 gallons of raw sewage to flow into the Hudson River near Green Island.
- Hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage have been flowing into the Mohawk River in Amsterdam since October. In July, 500,000 gallons ofraw sewage spilled into the river.
- Schenectady City Hall was temporarily closed in November due to flooding caused by a water main break.
“Many water and sewer utilities have projects at the ready but do not have the financial capacity to advance the capital improvements,” said Joseph Fiegl, P.E., President of the New York Water Environment Association. “Grant assistance from the state jumpstarts projects and provides critical support for local ratepayers shouldering the remaining costs. Enhancing the protection of the state’s waterways and our public health – as well as supporting economic development – is worth the investment.”
“Investment in clean water infrastructure just makes plain sense not only environmentally which is paramount, but economically as well,” pointed out Charles Moore, director of planning and development for the City of Rensselaer. “The City of Rensselaer has already begun to see dividends from the approximately $15 million in clean water and drinking water projects completed over the last five years. Lower costs from repairs and new building projects have all been achieved by tying into new, reliable municipal infrastructure.”
“Because water and sewer infrastructure is supported by regressive fees, not generated through property taxes, ratepayers living in poverty or on a fixed income are especially sensitive to rate increases,” said Martin Daley, Environmental Planner for Capital District Regional Planning Commission. “It is imperative that state and federal funding be leveraged to assist local communities. Funding support from our state and federal partners can help address failing critical infrastructure, improve water quality, and protect against combined sewer surcharges while reducing the burden on ratepayers.”
“There is nothing more important than ensuring the health and safety of our communities,” said state Senator Neil Breslin (D-44). “As our infrastructure ages, it is critical that we allocate the resources necessary for improvements. Enacting the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act must be at the forefront of this effort because having safe drinking water and a modern sewer network is vital to our health and economic vitality.”
“I am proud to have partnered with Governor Cuomo, Assemblymember McDonald and our colleagues in state government to provide much-needed funding to help communities fix vital water and sewer pipes,” said Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy (D-109). “This will require new resources in the years ahead – as we saw in the city of Albany earlier this year with disruptive failures and gaping sinkholes, in our aging water infrastructure. I encourage the Governor to make the program we created a permanent part of the budget, and welcome working with him to build legislative support for necessary adequate annual funding.”
There has been strong interest expressed in water infrastructure improvements from a diverse set of groups in Hudson River Watershed counties, such as Albany, where the documented need for wastewater infrastructure investments alone tops $2.5 billion, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2016, wastewater projects in the Hudson River Watershed with total project costs of $285 million were initiated with Water Infrastructure Improvement Act grants acting as the catalysts. To date, approximately 130 projects have received funding from the program.