The End of Cheap Water

Published by Michael Frank on

Aging Infrastructure is Driving Up Costs in the Hudson Valley

New York State has some of the oldest water and sewer networks in the country. But unlike roads and bridges, where we see the direct effects of what that means (like an axle-smashing pothole that causes accidents and lawsuits), leaking pipes are underground. We know that sometimes the water coming out of our faucets can be rusty or brown, that water main breaks can unexpectedly disrupt our commutes or errands, and that our water bills may have slowly increased through the years. But despite these impacts on our daily lives, we rarely recognize the connection to our aging infrastructure.

Or, as is the case in Flint, Michigan, and Newburgh, New York, we only know there’s a dire problem after the fact, when the water turns out to be poisonous.

In the Hudson Valley we’re blessed with bountiful water. With climate change, the reality will be too much water, not too little. Plentitude isn’t the issue.

But as we’ve seen in Newburgh, relying on old infrastructure without proper, and regular testing can mean we’re being poisoned unwittingly.

Another pernicious and unseen threat is that the conduits that bring us fresh water will break down to such an extent that their repair will be monumentally expensive. New York City, which draws its water from a system of reservoirs that extend over 100 miles from Manhattan, has to move about 1 billion gallons of water a day to nine million customers. Billions of dollars are now being spent to bring New York’s supply chain into good repair. If there’s any large-scale breakdown in that system imagine the number of trucks and rail cars it would take to transport even a fraction of that amount of water.

Now think about this century-old infrastructure moving water statewide.

Some cities in the Hudson Valley have seen up to 50 percent water loss levels, according to a 2017 state comptroller’s study. How much will it cost to fix thousands of miles of ancient pipe? As much as $39 billion, according to the comptroller’s report.

Recently, Mayor Tim Rogers of the Village of New Paltz, along with KT Tobin, the Benjamin Center’s Associate Director – who also happens to be the Deputy Mayor of the Village of New Paltz – convened a group of water experts from around the state to meet at SUNY New Paltz.

They wanted to bring regional Hudson Valley leaders, policy makers, and activists to the event so everyone could understand the nuances, complexities, and costs of maintaining clean water supplies, particularly for smaller municipalities.

And they wanted the meeting at the college not only because it was a convenient venue but, as Rogers explained, the location actually illustrates the complexity of water issues for many Hudson Valley communities. In total, the local water system supplies 27,000 people, according to the 2010 census, which includes the village, the town outside the village, and SUNY New Paltz. The area sits astride NYC’s Catskill Aqueduct which dates to 1916. Water travels through this aqueduct from the Ashokan Reservoir to New York City. Thanks to a century-old agreement, New Paltz can buy water from the aqueduct’s manager, New York City.

“There’s just one problem,” Rogers says. “The cost has been rising for quite some time now and we’ve been told the cost of NYC water will continue to go up 11 percent per year, with no end in sight.”

New Paltz supplements the New York City water by drawing water from reservoirs on the Mohonk Ridge. But, says Rogers, it’s not enough water that the village could go it alone. “It’s at most a ten-day supply.”

So the system for 27,000 people is stuck for now relying on the New York City supply, but because of so many leaks, it’s not only paying that ever-increasing tab, it’s doing so while figuratively pouring a lot of that water down the drain.

“Google ‘non-revenue water’ and you’ll see what we’re up against,” says Rogers. What he means is that you can’t charge for water that never gets to people’s taps, making it impossible to stay on top of rising costs, let alone repair failing pipes. “When I came into office we had 44 percent non-revenue water,” he says, which is much worse than the national average for system-wide leaks. “Something I’m really proud with our current union contract is we added financial incentives to stopping leaks.” Rogers says New Paltz Department of Public Works staff get paid more for every one percent gain the village makes in sealing up water losses more quickly. “We just did the math. We saw that we would save X, so we took a fraction of X and said we could afford to pay that fraction to our employees for stopping the loss.”

And Rogers isn’t talking about an abstract amount of money, either. A 100-gallon-per-minute leak becomes a $100,000 loss very quickly, he says.

Now Rogers says the leak rate fell to 34.1 percent in 2017. This is still not ideal, but because New Paltz will need money from state grants to progressively repair pipes before they break, there’s only so much the village can do. At the moment it’s like an endless game of whack-a-mole.

New Paltz is also studying ways to add more groundwater to its mix. One site, at Moriello Pool and Park, is being considered now. “The State Department of Health says ground water is much better than surface water [like a reservoir] because it doesn’t require as much treatment.” And as Rogers explains, smaller locales like New Paltz only have so much control over cost drivers. Facing the compounding costs of water from the aqueduct, he says even stopping leaks won’t be enough.

But Rogers is sure that adding more accurate metering, which is coming, and will partially be funded with help from New York City, will help drive conservation. Because when your bill goes up, you use resources more wisely.

None of these measures actually get at what the state comptroller’s report says, which is that small municipalities throughout the Hudson Valley will need to make comprehensive surveys of their entire water infrastructure. Then they’ll need to conceive of, and execute, decades-long infrastructure repair projects. That kind of time scale is daunting, and with leaders elected to two and four year terms, local governments rarely manage such sustained diligence.

Then again, somehow our predecessors built an aqueduct system that, 100 years later, still slakes the thirst of millions of New Yorkers every day.

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Full video of the 1/31/18 Water Event at SUNY New Paltz


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