Increased Investments Needed for Water Infrastructure

A legislative Column by Assemblyman Will Barclay
While there is a lot of disagreement in Albany, one issue where there is consensus in the legislature and with the governor is that additional investment needs to be made in our aging sewer and water infrastructure.

The unfortunate stories of Flint, Michigan, and the lead contamination of its water supply and here in New York in Hoosick Falls with the contamination of their water with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) illustrate that we need to do a better job on both the federal and state level to assist localities to maintain and upgrade their water and sewer systems.

Upgrading this infrastructure will not be cheap.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that New York will need to invest $22 billion over the next 20 years in order to simply maintain our current system.

The state’s Department of Health in 2007 estimated that the state would need $39 billion over 20 years just for drinking water infrastructure projects.

Currently, most revenues used to maintain and upgrade our sewer and water systems come from user fees and charges.

However, because much of the water infrastructure is underground, its upkeep often doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

In addition, repairs and upgrades are expensive and local officials, rightfully so, want to keep water bills low.

As a result, often the amount of fees charged do not equal what is needed to properly maintain the system.

In order to help grow and improve our water infrastructure, in 1996, New York state established the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.

This fund, which is primarily funded with federal money, can provide market rate financing, reduced interest rate loans and limited grants for eligible water system projects.

Since its establishment, it has assisted public water systems with more than $5.24 billion in financing.

Even with this amount of financing, according to a NYS Comptroller report released in February of this year, 95% of the drinking water infrastructure improvement projects submitted to the DWSRF did not receive any assistance.

Because there was still a significant need for funding assistance, two years ago the legislature and the governor enacted the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act.

This act set up a grant program which provides qualifying municipalities up to 60% funding for their water and sewer upgrade projects with a $5 million cap per project.

When first enacted, $200 million over 3 years was dedicated to the program.

However, last year in recognition of the scope of the required upgrades, an agreement was reached to double the size of the program bringing total funding to $400 million by the end of 2018.

The governor this year is proposing to add to the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act by creating a $2 billion capital appropriation for water quality improvements.

This appropriation would be for $400 million over five years.

The money would be used to finance, among other things, drinking water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades, land acquisition to protect water sources, and replacement of lead-contaminated drinking water lines.

In response, the State Senate is proposing in addition to governor’s $2 billion over 5 years, a $5 billion voter-approved bond act to be used for clean water projects.

The Assembly essentially agrees with the Governor’s $2 billion over five years but sets forth where and how a significant amount of the money should be spent.

The good news is that regardless of whether the Governor’s, the Assembly’s or State Senate’s proposal is adopted in the budget due by April 1, there is a commitment to substantially increase the state’s investment in water and sewer infrastructure.

This additional investment will help our struggling municipalities to maintain and improve their infrastructure so that we can continue to have a safe and well maintained water system.

If you have any questions or comments regarding this or any other state issues, please contact me.

My office can be reached by mail at 200 N. Second St., Fulton, NY 13069, by email at [email protected], or by calling (315) 598-5185.

You also can friend me, Assemblyman Barclay, on Facebook.