NY’s Water Infrastructure Proposal: A Much-Needed Investment

Frank Sinatra, in his song “New York, New York” made a line famous by saying, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” In a city where people are trying to beat the competition to elbow their way to the top in entertainment, finance, real estate and other industries, making it in New York is not only an anthem, it’s a rallying call for when the road seems impossible.

Last year, water crises in cities like Hoosick Falls, New York, and Flint, Michigan, along with so many other communities across the country, revealed that our country’s water infrastructure is beyond its breaking point. Time and again we saw stories about lead and other contaminants showing up in drinking water tests, and contamination is a big problem all over New York, including the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island Sound and Great Lakes.  

Governor Cuomo is trying to address these problems with a $2 billion proposal to improve water quality across the state of New York. The state Senate and Assembly have also proposed substantial funding for rebuilding New York’s water infrastructure, from source water to what comes out of our taps. Initial ideas from our state leaders about how to spend the funding focuses on curbing source water contamination along with polluted runoff and making investments to rebuild and improve water infrastructure. While we know that $2 billion or even $5 billion will not come close to solving all the state’s water issues, this significant sum opens the door for other communities and municipalities to begin taking a serious look at how they can play a role in fixing the state’s water problems and will hopefully spur continued investments in the coming years.

The state budget is in the infamous sausage-making phase, but we have some ideas of what we think will make for a good start. Some of these include:

  • Lead service line replacement
    • There is no safe level of lead, and the best way to prevent a child or adult from exposure is to remove the risk. Getting adequate and dedicated resources to replace lead service lines, especially in schools, is a high priority.
    • Schools across the state are finding lead in their drinking water. By providing additional funding through this proposal rather than tapping into the state’s already strained education funds could go a long way to help schools fix the problem now rather than a generation from now.
  • Affordability
    • Because the bill has come due to rehabilitate and replace outdated systems, basic water and sewer services are placing more stress on the budgets of low income New Yorkers, while strapping water/sewer utility budgets overall. Instituting a program similar to the Governor’s energy affordability program for water and sewer rates would:
      • ensure that low-income residents can afford their water and sewer services; 
      • be directly responsive to a concern that water/sewer utilities raise with the state when arguing against enforcement of clean water standards – “we can’t upgrade our infrastructure because we would have to raise rates on those who can least afford it”; and
      • allow utilities/municipalities to raise more local revenue to complement direct state investments in water infrastructure.
  • Source water protection
    • An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and preventing our waters from becoming polluted is more cost effective than trying to clean it up with a high-tech filtration system. Ensuring that our sources of water are free from sewage spills, polluted runoff and other toxic dumping will go a long way to protect the water that eventually comes out of our taps.
  • Investments in green infrastructure
    • Water is a scarce resource and ensuring that we use it wisely will help us preserve it for future generations. By including investments in green infrastructure like rain gardens, green roofs, rain barrels and permeable pavement, we show that we are not only working to fix the past issues with our water infrastructure, but looking forward as well. These smart solutions include investments in green space that improves neighborhood quality of life.
  • Identifying and targeting vulnerable communities as a top priority
    • Figuring out where to start will be a challenge because the problem of aging infrastructure and water pollution is so widespread. But identifying and prioritizing vulnerable communities, like low income communities and communities of color with populations most at risk due to contamination, should be first. The Governor recognizes this by, for example, prioritizing lead line replacement for hardship communities. Getting resources to those who need it most would help revitalize cities and neighborhoods across the state—a winning solution for all.

If the great state of New York, which covers the entire scope of water issues from urban to rural, can take a big step forward to fix its water issues, there’s no reason why others can’t do the same.

All that’s left is to get it done.

As Frank Sinatra says, “It’s up to you New York, New York.” 

About the Authors

Joan Leary Matthews

Senior Attorney, Water program

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