– OPED: Drinking, Wastewater Systems Need Significant Upgrade

February 1, 2016

Pipes are easy to take for granted — they’re under the ground. But their condition is the linchpin to our public health and economic development efforts.

Environmental Advocates regularly partners with public officials on policy campaigns, including #FixOurPipes. The following OPED was drafted alongside Wappingers Falls Mayor Matt Alexander and published in the Albany Times Union on January 27, 2016.

Drinking, Wastewater Systems Need Significant Upgrade

Communities statewide, like my village of Wappingers Falls, are doing all they can to keep their drinking and wastewater infrastructure up and running.

In many cases the infrastructure is decades — if not centuries — old. Water mains break, we fix them. Strong rain forces sewage discharges, we do what we can to stop them as quickly as possible.

But without new state budget investments, it becomes more challenging to stay on top of needs, attract new development and deliver the safe, clean water New Yorkers deserve.

Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators created a three-year grant program to improve communities’ access to funds and get projects moving forward. That money was spent almost as quickly as it was invested, and many communities like mine didn’t make the cut — not because needs don’t exist, but significantly more resources are required. The investment was $75 million when an estimated $800 million is needed annually for sewer infrastructure alone.

This shortfall has led a diverse coalition of local leaders, business interests, and public health and environmental advocates to request that the governor and state Legislature invest $800 million for drinking and wastewater infrastructure grants. It’s a big ask, but with more than $2 billion in cash available from financial penalties, it is a realistic one. Supporters include my colleagues at the New York Conference of Mayors, as well as expert agencies such as the Dutchess County Water and Wastewater Authority and Orange County Water Authority.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Watersheds Needs Survey was just released, and it states that New York has the largest need for clean water infrastructure investment in the nation.

Last year, Wappingers Falls secured a $14.8 million, zero-percent loan from the Environmental Facilities Corp., an entity that provides critical support. But with loans — instead of grants — the cost is shouldered entirely by local taxpayers. Given ongoing restraints on local spending and other hurdles that exist for mayors and local leaders, loans are often not a possibility.

What’s happening in Wappingers Falls is happening statewide. Wastewater infrastructure fails, then drinking water supplies are contaminated. This unfortunate yet inevitable chain of events repeats itself again and again. Our village needed a $5.64 million water treatment plant as well as a $1 million pump station to ensure clean water for residents, which arose after sewage overflows from upstream carried phosphorous and nitrogen into Wappinger Lake, our aquifer recharge.

When communities can’t maintain and replace aging infrastructure, it means residents downstream are unjustly compromised by sewage discharges. These projects are essential to protect the health of local residents.

Pipes are easy to take for granted — they’re under the ground. But their condition is the linchpin to our public health and economic development efforts. In Wappingers Falls, most of our pipes are clay and more than 100 years old. In places like Albany, some sections of pipe were installed not long after the Civil War. Recently in Troy, residents throughout the region felt the pain when a century-old pipe broke. And the realities of old pipes led to 327 water main breaks in the Syracuse area in 2015, and more than 400 in Erie County.

At times, this amounts to inconveniences like boil water alerts; other times it is a loss of revenue for businesses, as streets are closed, recreational areas shut down, or — as occurred in the city of Lockport last year — the closure of public services like schools and health programs.

I know firsthand that local officials are doing all we can, and we need greater investment from the state.

As public servants, our responsibility is to protect residents by creating a sustainable future through sound economic development. We must deal with this issue head-on and make funding our water infrastructure a priority.

Cuomo and state legislators got the ball rolling on an issue that others ignored far too long. On behalf of my community, and others like mine, we urge them to invest $800 million from bank settlements in this year’s budget for drinking and wastewater infrastructure grants.