Key Vote Set on New York Water and Sewer Rate Hike Proposal

The New York City Water Board will vote tomorrow on a proposal to boost water and sewer rates in the nation’s largest city by 12.9%.    

The proposed rate hike, which would take effect at the start of the fiscal year on July 1st, presents something of a quandary to friends of New York City’s environment.  The proposal is both meritorious and worrisome. 

On the plus side, the $ 5.7 billion dollar, four year capital spending plan that this rate increase would support is generally sound and indeed essential to the city’s long-term future.  And the city’s new rate proposal includes several innovative features.

But the sheer size of the increase, coming on top of significant jumps in city water rates over the past several years, is also a cause for concern.  Under the city proposal, the average single family homeowner making direct debit payments would face an increase of from $723 to $808 dollars a year. And big leaps in water and sewer rates impose real hardships on many New Yorkers, especially lower-income residents. 

NRDC has strongly backed the Bloomberg Administration’s commitment to sustainability, which the Mayor announced on Earth Day 2007 and reaffirmed just last month. 

However, part of the overall drive for sustainability must seek to insure that city residents at all income levels can afford to live here.  And continuing, double-digit increases in water rates conflict with the notion of long-term sustainability.

NRDC’s support for the FY2011 water rate increase thus comes with reluctance.

But NRDC does indeed support this proposal because New York City’s largely unseen drinking water supply and treatment infrastructure -- the city’s single most important capital assets – simply must receive a continuing infusion of capital funds.  City residents would have a hard time surviving for even a single day without the reservoirs, aqueducts, tunnels and mains that provide 1.1 billion gallons of clean water to half the state’s population.  And the network that handles the huge volumes of sewage and stormwater that are discharged into rivers and bays that surround our city remains critical to our region’s ecology and to the recreational needs of millions of residents and visitors.

For years, however, city officials took these assets for granted and failed to insure that water rates were adequate to provide for the upkeep of these aging water works.  The proposed rate increase is needed to continue New York City’s investment in essential projects like the Third Water Tunnel, the Croton Filtration Plant, the Catskill/Delaware Ultra-Violet Disinfection Plant, the Watershed Land Acquisition Program and other water supply and sewage treatment projects contained in the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) capital plan.

The city’s water and sewer rate proposal does have at least one very welcome element -- a Stormwater Pilot Program for stand-alone parking lots.  Under this provision, wastewater charges would for the first time be assessed on approximately 350 stand-alone parking lots; such facilities have never paid any sewage charges despite the fact that they generate large amounts of stormwater runoff every time it rains or snows. 

Significantly, the pilot program would also set up a credit system for parking lot operators who implement measures to capture stormwater on site and prevent it from flowing into the city’s overburdened wastewater/stormwater system.

NRDC has long supported a municipal shift to such “green infrastructure” solutions --things like rain gardens, roadside planters, planting strips and porous pavement -- as an environmentally preferable alternative to more costly stormwater facilities. And we hope this pilot program kicks off a larger Bloomberg Administration initiative to capture more of the city’s uncontrolled stormwater via cost-effective green infrastructure.

In testimony that we submitted to the Water Board on its proposed water rate changes, NRDC made four specific recommendations designed to encourage low-tech stormwater solutions and reduce the likelihood of double-digit water rate increases in future years:

  1. DEP should restructure its water and sewer charges by creating a separate rate schedule to cover costs associated with stormwater runoff and to incentivize green infrastructure investments;
  2. DEP should work with the environmental community and with state and federal agencies to prioritize future capital expenditures so that the most important projects proceed first and so that costs can be phased in over time, to avoid sharp jumps in water rates;
  3. DEP should intensify efforts to collect overdue water-rate payments from those who have fallen years behind in paying their water bills; and
  4. DEP should work with others in the Bloomberg Administration to revamp or remove the current “rental payment” charge, which is now paid by city water users but is not directly connected to water or sewer services. 

If history is any guide, the Water Board is likely to approve the requested rate increase at tomorrow’s meeting.  But that won’t end the matter for the Water Board or for DEP’s promising new Commissioner, Cas Holloway.

Once the new charges are adopted, the city’s water ratepayers will be counting on  Commissioner Holloway to assure a safe and reliable drinking water supply, to find cost-effective ways to cleanse our waterways,  to guard against wasteful spending and to see to it that next year’s water rate proposal comes in well below this year’s number.