NY Water Infrastructure Investments Are Worth Every Penny

When it comes to water infrastructure, New York is going in big.

In the budget bill that passed last week, New York set aside $2.5 billion for a clean water infrastructure program to fix and update the state’s aging drinking water and waste water treatment systems. This is a half billion dollars added to the Governor’s original proposal of $2 billion, demonstrating that sufficient and affordable drinking water is also of high importance to the legislature – as it should be.

It’s clear that the state is trying to grow from the lessons learned in Hoosick Falls during the last two years. It should be commended for avoiding a band-aid short term fix, but instead trying to work to address systemic issues facing some centuries-old water systems comprehensively. While it’s not perfect, it’s a solid step forward to bringing these systems into the 21st century.

Aside from allocating a significant amount of resources for the problem, the new program has a number of important items:

  • Protecting water sources. The budget allocates $110 million to acquire land to protect sources of water. This common sense measure recognizes that it’s much cheaper to protect water at the source than to clean it up after it’s contaminated.
  • Investing in green infrastructure. The budget allocates $50 million to green infrastructure investments, which can include rain gardens, community gardens, permeable pavement, green roofs, and rain barrels, just to name a few green infrastructure measures. All of these prevent water runoff, which carries pollution and can create flooding. These smart investments improve communities and build a sense of community pride.
  • Water quality projects. The budget allocates $245 million for projects to improve sewage treatment, stormwater controls, and non-point source pollution. A good start, but much more funding is needed.
  • Expanding testing to include emerging contaminants for small drinking water systems. As we’ve seen from Hoosick Falls, there are many contaminants threatening the integrity of our drinking water, but there are no safeguards in the federal law to require testing or mitigate these risks for small drinking water systems. This budget would require small systems serving less than 10,000 people to test for contaminants that are listed by EPA, but for which these systems are not required to test.
  • Addressing Long Island’s cesspool and septic system problems. The budget allocates $75 million for updating cesspools and septic systems. The concern on Long Island is that excess nutrients are seeping from these systems into the sole source aquifer and surface waters. Excess nutrients create algal blooms, which are a public health and environmental threat. This budget item will go a long way to update these systems by adding nutrient controls.
  • Lead service line replacement. New York is not immune to the problem of lead contamination in drinking water. The budget includes $20 million to replace lead pipes. 

Nothing that comes out of the governing process is perfect because it reflects values and compromise from many. A program to provide assistance to low income consumers who will be affected by increased water and sewer rates was left out of the budget bill, but we’ll be working with the Governor’s office and other state agencies to find ways to further this important issue.

Additionally, the budget establishes a state Drinking Water Quality Council, which would recommend drinking water standards to the State Commissioner of Health. This provision has been met with some skepticism because the Commissioner of Health failed to act quickly enough to tell the people of Hoosick Falls to stop drinking the water. Instead, EPA acted first when the New York Commissioner refused to. Time will tell whether this Council and the Commissioner will be nimble and responsive enough to protect the public health.

Water is vital for any community to thrive and be successful. That means the water must be delivered to and taken away from homes and communities safely with no room for error. Public health and the environment are counting on it. Clearly, upgrading the entire water infrastructure isn’t cheap, but I’ll bet you would be hard pressed to find anyone saying that clean water isn’t worth it.

Kudos to the Governor and the legislature for these important first steps toward bringing New York’s water infrastructure into the 21st Century. We look forward to continuing investments in our water infrastructure.

About the Authors

Joan Leary Matthews

Senior Attorney, Water program

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