To Maintain a "Competitive Advantage" on Water Supply, New York Must Step-Up Its Game on Water Conservation

Less than three years ago, when Governor Cuomo signed into law new state water conservation standards, he said:

The preservation and protection of New York's water resources is vital to the state's residents, farmers and businesses.  This law will enhance the state's ability to manage its water to promote economic growth and address droughts while protecting the environment.

As the governor’s press release explained, the law will also enable DEC to comply with commitments under the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact by regulating all significant water withdrawals occurring in the New York portion of the Great Lakes Basin.”

And the law will, indeed, do all of that – if the state faithfully implements it.

But if New York drops the ball, it runs the risk of losing its competitive advantage over other regions of the country, in regard to available water supply to support economic growth and prosperity.  The state’s Climate Action Council has warned

Demand for water continues to grow, including for human consumption, agricultural use, and energy production.  As other parts of the country experience large changes in drought frequency and intensity, New York’s water resources may become a defining economic asset resulting in the migration of people and businesses into the state. This may bring some economic benefits, but will present new challenges as pressure on water resources increases.

And excessive water withdrawals threaten the health of some of the state’s most iconic outdoor treasures – from the Hudson River to Lakes Ontario and Erie – by harming recreational fisheries and aquatic ecosystems.

Unfortunately, early efforts to enforce the new law aren’t looking so promising. 

Fortunately, there are sensible solutions being used elsewhere, from which New York can learn.  (More on that below.)

Last year, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) began to phase-in new requirements for the largest water users in the state, such as power plants and other industrial facilities that, individually, use as much or more water than most entire cities in New York.  The new standards also apply to public water utilities, which were already subject to state supervision under older laws.

But there’s a very disturbing trend with this roll-out.

The state should be ensuring that these water users are employing all “environmentally sound and economically feasible water conservation measures” and avoiding “significant adverse environmental impacts” – as required by the 2011 law.  Instead, DEC has been issuing, or proposing to issue, permits that simply rubber-stamp existing practices, or even authorize major increases in existing water use – without consideration of more water-efficient alternatives and without regard to the environmental consequences.

A series of letters from NRDC, concerning proposed water withdrawal permits, reveals this troubling pattern:

  • The Mohawk Valley Water Authority is the among the-largest water utilities in the state, providing drinking water to Utica and surrounding towns.  The utility’s water source – a reservoir that also supports a downstream trout-fishing stream, navigation in the state’s canal system, and a small hydroelectric power facility – was dangerously low in the last local drought in 2007, leading to a ban on fishing and an early seasonal closure of the canal.  There are plans to bring new microchip manufacturing plants to the area, which could create hundreds of new jobs but depend on the availability of huge amounts of water.  And the Water Authority currently loses 40% of its water to leakage, before it ever reaches local residents or business.  Yet, DEC hasn’t scrutinized the Water Authority’s application to more than double its existing withdrawals.
  • The Eastman Business Park, in Rochester, is viewed as an engine for economic growth in a region that has seen major downturns in manufacturing.  The facility describes itself as a “city within a city,” which houses a wide range of manufacturing companies including bio-fuels, bio-chemicals, fuel cells, batteries, photovoltaic, and medical materials.  It currently uses up to 18.5 million gallons per day and has plans to add new water-intensive manufacturing firms.  The facility uses a number of commendable water conservation measures, but, when the new companies start operation, it expects to push against the limits of its water withdrawal capacity – nearly three times current usage (and more than all but 5 cities in the state).  Still, DEC hasn’t required the business park to evaluate available means to further improve water use efficiency, which would help ensure a sustainable water supply for manufacturing at the site.  Nor has DEC required any consideration of how to reduce adverse environmental impacts, including the suctioning of untold numbers of fish and fish eggs and larvae from Lake Ontario into the intake system, and the release of heated water back into the Genesee River.
  • The Empire State Plaza complex of state buildings in Albany house 11,000 employees, a state museum, library, and archives, and a performing arts center and convention center.  It also withdraws up to 92 million gallons of water daily from the Hudson River – more water than any city in the state uses, except New York City – and along with it likely extracts (and kills) millions of fish and fish eggs and larvae.  The sole use for that water is a “once-through” system that serves as air conditioning for the complex.  DEC hasn’t required the facility to consider upgrades that could actually save both money and water, nor an alternative cooling system configuration, such as that used by the new World Trade Center, which modified the design for a cooling system very similar to the Empire State Plaza's, reducing water usage by 80%.
  • Two power plants in Queens, each of which withdraws over one billion gallons per day from the East River, have sought new water withdrawal permits.  DEC already granted one of these permits, to the Ravenswood Generating Station, without considering a more efficient type of cooling system that would dramatically reduce the millions of fish and fish eggs and larvae the plant sucks up every year.  The Sierra Club is suing DEC for, in effect, rubber-stamping Ravenswood’s permit application.  Meanwhile, DEC has proposed to do the same for the Astoria Generating Station, which uses a similar amount of water.  There are at least 16 more power plants statewide that use over 100 million gallons per day for their cooling systems.  Those permits are up next, and DEC shows every sign it will handle them the same way.      

Others are taking notice of this trend.  Nearly 20 other organizations joined NRDC’s comments to DEC on these permits.  State Assembly members downstream of the Mohawk Valley Water Authority have voiced concerns.  And there’s been recent press coverage of the pending applications in Rochester and Utica, including red flags raised by the editorial board at the Utica Observer-Dispatch.

The State Legislature – which passed the 2011 law unanimously – should take notice too, and demand answers from DEC.

Part of the problem, as NRDC emphasized to DEC last fall, is that the state hasn’t issued any clear guidelines on what sorts of water conservation measures are expected of commercial, industrial, and institutional water users.  And it hasn’t updated its conservation guidelines for municipal water utilities in 25 years.  Further, the state has not adopted guidelines on minimum stream flows to protect fisheries and other aquatic resources, which would set an outer limit on acceptable water withdrawals.

The good news is that there are models from which New York can learn, to improve its own efforts.  For example:

  • A handful of states (and the Delaware River Basin Commission, which covers parts of New York) are starting to seriously address the pervasive problem of leakage from municipal water systems, by requiring annual “water loss” audits using a standard methodology developed by the American Water Works Association.
  • Several states condition eligibility for financial assistance to water utilities on the implementation of water conservation measures.  NRDC recently petitioned New York to do the same. 
  • Wisconsin developed a matrix of conservation measures that water users are expected to use, based on their size and industry, as part of the state's regulations implementing the Great Lakes Compact. 
  • California recently completed a comprehensive guide to conservation practices for commercial, industrial, and institutional water users. 
  • For some power plants – but not the ones discussed above – DEC is moving to require “closed-cycle” cooling systems that drastically cut water use. 
  • The Nature Conservancy has developed science-based stream flow guidelines for New York, similar to those used elsewhere, which the state can adopt. 

Sensible solutions are out there for the taking.  All that seems to be missing, so far, is the political will.  It’s time for New York to step up its game.