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DEC: Water crisis looms

DEC: Water crisis looms

Saying the state is facing a looming water infrastructure crisis, Gov. David Paterson has formed a t

Saying the state is facing a looming water infrastructure crisis, Gov. David Paterson has formed a task force, called the New Clean Water Collaborative, to press the federal government for funding to make needed repairs and upgrades.

The state has no shortage of water for drinking, recreation and other uses, but that water is in danger of being contaminated because of declining wastewater infrastructure, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

According to the state, New York communities will have to spend more than $50 billion over the next 20 years to make needed repairs and upgrades, the result of a steep decline in federal aid. The DEC estimates that repairs for municipal wastewater treatment systems will cost $36.2 billion, while repairs for drinking water infrastructure could exceed $20 billion.

Federal support for water infrastructure repairs and upgrades has plunged 70 percent over the past two decades, from $2.4 billion in loans for such projects in 1987, to $687 million in loans in 2008, according to the DEC. In New York, federal assistance fell from $227 million in 1991 to $75.1 million in 2007. The DEC says these cuts have delayed needed maintenance and contributed to Clean Water Act violations; a recent U.S. Environment Protection Agency report stated that funding for the loan program is set to expire in 2011.

A DEC study, released in March, found that wastewater treatment systems throughout the state are failing, and that municipalities do not have the funds to repair and replace the existing infrastructure. Fewer than 40 percent of municipalities have a capital improvement plan for their wastewater collection systems.

“This is mostly an issue for local governments, but the state doesn’t want to leave local governments alone on this,” said Judith Enck, Paterson’s deputy secretary for the environment. The hope is that municipalities will have more success in securing federal money for water infrastructure maintenance and upgrades by combining forces through the New Clean Water Collaborative, she said. “We want to get as much money from the federal government as we possibly can,” she said. “We’ll probably do better with a coordinated, statewide approach.”

Some communities have done a good job of planning for the future, but other communities “have their heads in the sand,” Enck said. “It’s all over the map.”

Mark Lavigne, a spokesman for the state Association of Counties, said water infrastructure is a concern for counties. “In light of the state’s budget challenges, this issue is more critical than ever,” he said. “We don’t want to let this critical issue drop off the radar screen.”

Rob Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates of Albany, and a member of the New Clean Water Collaborative, praised the state for addressing the issue. “Here in New York the water infrastructure needs are pretty acute, and the bill is going to be coming due very soon.”

“It’s not like sewage treatment plants are crumbling into ruins right now,” Moore said. “But the longer we put off addressing the issue, the more expensive it gets, and the more risks you have. It’s a major issue.” Part of the problem, Moore said, is that it’s unclear where the money will come from to pay for upgrades and repairs.

In New York, a lot of communities, particularly older ones, use combined sewers, where storm water and raw sewage run together through the same pipes, rather than separate pipes. During periods of heavy rain, the high volume of waste and water often overwhelm treatment plants, sending runoff straight into rivers. But tougher federal water quality standards have forced communities throughout the country to upgrade their sewer systems.

Locally, the Capital District Regional Planning Commission is in the midst of a $4 million study to look for ways to reduce the flow of untreated waste from six municipalities — Albany, Watervliet, Rensselaer, Troy, Cohoes and Green Island — collectively known as the Albany Pool. The goal is to create a long-term plan for the runoff by 2009, as mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and DEC. Right now, the Capital District Regional Planning Commission is finishing up a study looking at how much water flows through the system, and the water quality of the Hudson River, where the runoff goes. Those results should be available in late fall, according to Leif Engstrom, project manager for the commission.

Engstrom said the Albany Pool is hoping for federal aid to pay for upgrades. “Cities in the U.S. that have combined sewer overflows are older, urban cities,” he said. “These cities are already distressed, and putting the responsibility for an undertaking that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars on the community has to the potential to push them over the edge.”

“Forming the collaborative,” Engstrom said, “is an important first step.”

In New York, about 25 percent of the state’s 610 sewage treatment plants are operating beyond their useful life expectancy and using outmoded technology, Enck said.

Undertreated or raw sewage, street waste and nutrient pollution cause excess algae and weed growth in Long Island Sound, the Hudson River, the Mohawk River, Lake Champlain, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and the Finger Lakes, according to the DEC.

Moore said the status of New York’s water quality is uncertain. “Because of staff reductions at DEC and budget reductions, we don’t think the state is doing as much water quality monitoring as we’d like,” he said.

The Clean Water Collaborative will be chaired by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Ross Pepe, the executive director of the Construction Industry Council and Building Contractors Association. It will include representatives from government, businesses and environmental organizations.

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