When the topic is water, Schenectady and surrounding communities are more likely to end up on the “best-tasting” list than in news reports about polluted water.
In large part, that’s because of the source: the Great Flats Aquifer. The remains of a prehistoric great lake, it lies under the Mohawk River plains west of the city, supplying 25 million gallons daily to Schenectady, Rotterdam, Glenville, Scotia and Niskayuna.
Sometimes called a world-class water source, around 150,000 people rely on the Great Flats supply.
It’s pure today, but that doesn’t mean it faces no threats — in fact, a chemical plume in Glenville that could threaten it is currently being cleaned up by the federal government.
The $15 million project is being done at the Glenville Business and Technology Park off Route 5, which was polluted decades ago with the toxic chemical trichloroethylene. The site sits over the aquifer, about 1,500 feet north of the river.
Ray Gillen, Schenectady County director of planning and economic development, said it took years of work and emphasizing the threat to the aquifer to get the federal cleanup to happen.
“That’s the biggest threat, the TCE plume 60 feet underground that was headed in the direction of the river,” Gillen said. “It’s been our highest priority. I’m thrilled the project is underway.”
But that kind of groundwater contamination —similar to what’s making news in Hoosick Falls and southwestern Vermont — isn’t the only threat.
Severe storms in the last decade have revealed that municipal wells near the Mohawk could be contaminated by floodwaters, should the waters rise high enough.
Tropical storms Irene and Lee in 2011 and a 2006 flood all threatened to swamp the sites along the river where Schenectady Rotterdam, and Glenville draw their water.
Flood waters would carry contaminants that could foul drinking water. The 2011 storms damaged Glenville’s water treatment plant on the north side of the river, and came within just a few vertical feet of contaminating the wells, according to a 2013 town report.
The report by the Glenville Well Field Protection Committee recommended that a dike be built around the water treatment plant, that the wellheads be raised above potential flood levels, and that the road to the plant be rebuilt to make it more flood-resistant.
Last September, the town received a $250,000 state grant to help pay for raising the wellheads and constructing the dike to protect the treatment plant from the next high-water event.
“During Irene and Lee, we came within just feet of overtopping. I remember telling people to buy bottled water,” said Glenville Town Supervisor Chris Koetzle. “We need to be prepared.”
The grant is being processed by the state, he said, but he’s hopeful that most of the work can take place this summer.
The town has about 6,000 water customers.
At the Glenville Business and Technology Park, meanwhile, the cleanup is being done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working at the behest of the U.S. General Services Administration, which owns the site, a former naval storage depot.
The property was used for storage and maintenance of landing craft and other military equipment during World War II, and it was no small operation: At one point more than 2,000 people worked there. The Navy left in 1960, but it was still in use for military storage during the Vietnam era.
TCE was a solvent chemical used in industrial cleaning, but is now banned because of links with cancer and other health problems.
To keep the chemical from reaching the aquifer, dozens of wells are being drilled to inject tons of iron into the ground, which will chemically destabilize the TCE and cause it to break down.
“It’s a proven technology, we know that,” said Tim Leonard, a construction manager with the Army Corps of Engineers. “It’s been around for 20 years.”
Monitoring wells are already in place. The injection of the iron is expected to commence in mid-May, and be completed by November. Monitoring will then continue for 30 years.
Gillen said getting the $15 million in federal funding was a major undertaking.
The GSA and Army Corps entered an agreement in 2010, though it then took years get the money. Gillen praised U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., for securing the funding in the 2015 federal budget, convincing others it should be a priority.
“We told them we’ve got a plume, it’s headed for the river, and it’s headed for a sole-source aquifer,” Gillen said.
But given the Schenectady region’s industrial past and present, there are other potential risks to the water supply.
Industrial or major commercial facilities sitting above the Great Flats Aquifer include General Electric’s manufacturing complex, the SI Group’s Rotterdam Junction chemical plant, major railroad operations and the ViaPort Rotterdam mall.
GE and the SI Group have had spills, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s environmental site remediation database, but they have been addressed. GE’s groundwater water flows away from the Schenectady well fields that are located a half-mile away, according to DEC, reducing the risk to drinking water.
Schenectady first tapped the aquifer as a water source in 1897. Today, Scotia, Glenville, Rotterdam and Niskayuna also draw their main water supplies from the aquifer, a total of 24 million gallons per day. The Department of Health estimates as much as 65 million gallons could be safely withdrawn.
The Great Flats Aquifer is a large deposit of water-saturated sand and gravel that was deposited as glaciers receded something like 10,000 years ago. A large lake some researchers have compared to Lake Ontario drained into those sands.
The great underground water supply — in its vastness and still-tapped potential — has the potential to be an economic development tool, as upstate New York competes for jobs with Western states now parched by years of drought.
“Water is going to be the next big natural resource issue,” predicted Gillen.
While Schenectady relies on the aquifer, other major cities in the Capital Region rely on surface-water reservoirs, with the water treated to kill any bacteria. Albany, Troy and Amsterdam all draw their water entirely or primarily from surface reservoirs located far beyond the city limits, like Amsterdam’s Glen Wild supply in the Saratoga County town of Providence.
Other than the situation in Hoosick Falls, Health Department records from required annual testing show no indications of emerging problems with lead or other chemicals in Capital Region drinking water supplies.