Thursday, May 28, 2009

More: Yesterday’s 2009 Environmental Bond Act Hearing

We’ve received a little better sense of what the organizers of the green jobs bond act are looking to accomplish. It comes in testimony of Scott Lorey, Legislative Director for The Adirondack Council, at the Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation Public Hearing on the Enactment of a New Environmental Bond Act yesterday morning. Since this statement details the state of environmental financing and offers a focus on watershed protection and clean water infrastructure (something the Adirondack Council has been working on), and it’s all we know so far, I’m reprinting most of it here:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak about the need for the Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Bond Act of 2009. Funding for environmental programs is one of the most pressing issues facing the organizations here today. A lot of great work has been accomplished over the years by the State and many of the groups testifying. However, more remains to be done and could be accomplished quickly, if additional funding was made available.

While the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) has been, and continues to be, a tremendous success story, it can only go so far. Since its creation in 1993, the EPF has appropriated over $2.2 billion to worthy environmental projects such as landfill closures, agricultural non-point source pollution control and local waterfront revitalization. However, spending has often moved slower than appropriations, allowing for nearly $500 million to be swept out of the Fund balance in the last seven years.

The environmental community has demonstrated over $1 billion in annual funding needs. Since this year’s budget has locked the EPF in at a funding level of $222 million for the next four years, it is imperative that an additional funding source be secured immediately. Collectively, environmental organizations, and other advocates have sought $500 in environmental appropriations. Unfortunately, with only $222 million, we are funding these and other programs at less than ¼ of the need.

An environmental bond act is the best option for funding in these difficult economic times as environmental bond acts have a 90 percent success rate. The previous bond acts have authorized about $6.35 billion (or about $18.5 billion in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation) for parks, sewage treatment facilities, solid waste management, water quality and air quality. Since 1965, there have been five successful environmental bond acts, with at least one in every decade. Since most of the funding for the 1996 Clean Water/ Clean Air Bond Act has been exhausted, it is time to once again ask the voter’s approval for additional, but very necessary, funding.

The Adirondack Council, while supportive of the entire proposal would like to focus on two of the five proposed categories: watershed protection and clean water infrastructure.

Clean Water/Watershed Protection

In 2006, the New York State Open Space Conservation Plan listed the average yearly need for open space conservation at $137 million. This includes money for State acquisition, farmland protection, working forest easements, State land stewardship and municipal parks grants. In the 2009 EPF, roughly $111 million was appropriated for these categories. While the State’s efforts here are laudable, being $26 million short on an annual basis creates a major shortfall which quickly adds up after several years.

Currently in the Adirondacks, there are over 20 priority project on the Open Space Plan. These projects have been identified by local committees as important areas to protect either through fee purchase or acquisition of a conservation easement. The types of projects range from wetlands and working forests to shorelines and scenic trails. Some are designed to protect rare plant and animal habitat and may only be visited by a few research scientists while others offer recreational opportunities that will be enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of tourists.

Adirondack open space protection projects also vary greatly in size and price. They run the gamut from $50,000 for a few hundred acres adjacent to existing Forest Preserve to $100 million for the entire holdings of a timber company. In terms of total dollar amounts, there is close to $200 million in projects that DEC and land saving organizations are currently working on in the Adirondacks. A significant portion of the $1 billion should be directed to land preservation.

Clean Water (Green) Infrastructure

According to the 2009 Final Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) Intended Use Plan, there are over $75 million in projects currently on the list in the Adirondack Park. As with most upstate communities, the expense of upgrades or replacing a system is often a tremendous burden on the limited number of residents that the systems serve. An example from a few years ago—the Village of Lake Placid had a water treatment plant that dated from 1972. It was reaching capacity and being stretched beyond that at certain times of the year. In 1999, the village began the process to replace the plant. By 2002, the Town of Wilmington, a few miles downstream along the West Branch of the Ausable River was forced to close its beach due to unacceptable levels of coliform bacteria. This happened for two years until the new plant was finally completed in 2004, at a cost of $15 million, which included a UV Disinfection system, to sterilize outgoing water with radiation to ensure that there would be no future problems with Wilmington’s beach and the nationally recognized trout fishing would continue without negative publicity. The cost of the new treatment plant was borne by the 2,700 or so residents of Lake Placid.

In addition to the needs for clean wastewater systems, drinking water needs are also a major concern in the Adirondacks. While the Adirondacks are world renowned for their abundance of clean water, it is a dirty little secret that many places in the Park have water unfit to drink. Just a month ago, DEC was forced to close the King Phillip’s Spring, located near Exit 30 of the Northway, due to high levels of coliform bacteria over the last 6 months. The spring, popular with residents and visitors alike, was considered a surface water source and therefore must be treated if it were to continue as a water source. Since it is located on the State land, treatment equipment could not be installed on the Forest Preserve.

Some towns are also out of compliance with current Department of Health standards because they are still using untreated surface reservoirs as their main drinking supply. One of the best examples of this is located in the Town of Long Lake. The hamlet of Raquette Lake within its borders was forced to abandon its surface reservoir because filtration to meet current standards was not practical and chlorination of the water mixed with the organic material in the water and produced a known carcinogen. Instead, the voters of the State approved a Constitutional Amendment in 2007 to allow to the Town to drill wells on State land near the existing reservoir in exchange for more lands elsewhere in the county to be added to the Forest Preserve.

Several Park communities have also been forced to seek new drinking water sources after it was discovered that their wells were contaminated and contained unacceptable levels of sodium. It is presumed that road salt was the main cause for at least some of the contaminations.

In the Town of Keene, three wells had to be drilled in 2004 in order to find a new water source. The old supply was found to be contaminated from a salt storage site and contained sodium at more than 200 parts per million, about 8 times the maximum acceptable level. Even then, the water from the new source had to be piped over a river to be used by the 300 people it serves.

We appreciate all of the work done by the Environmental Facilities Corporation to administer the SRF programs. However, Long-Term Subsidized Financing can only do so much for many of the small Adirondack communities struggling just to maintain current, traditional services. Hardship Financing and Drinking Water SRF grants should be expanded for economically distressed areas of the state like the Adirondacks. This component will be crucial to the North Country and the bond act would be able to relieve some of the burden which is facing many Park communities that need updated water and sewer sytems.

With additional SRF funding provided by the federal government in the stimulus package and an increase proposed in the FY 2010 budget, the state should be able to stretch these dollars further. By adding an additional $1 billion to EFC’s portfolio, they can use this money to leverage another $5 billion in federal dollars.

Finally, in 1996, the Adirondack Council was heavily involved in the Clean Air/Clean Water Bond Act. This year, the commitment will be much the same. We have already begun our media outreach and that will continue through Election Day. From Buffalo to Babylon and Oneonta to Plattsburgh, we will work to educate the public about the benefits of the Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Bond Act. In 1996, several Adirondack Council staff members even went so far defending the Bond Act as to file a lawsuit against CHANGE-NY and its front group, A Bunch of New Yorkers Who Like the Environment But Know This Bond Act is a Big Waste of Money. This group has vigorously campaigned against the bond act, but had gone a step further and ran outlandishly false ads, including a dancing pig to describe the bond act as nothing but pork. Hopefully this year no lawsuits will be necessary, but we will strongly support this proposal and make sure voters are aware of its tremendous benefits.

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Stories written under the Almanack's Editorial Staff byline are drawn from press releases and other notices.

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