Thursday, October 15, 2020

Council notes progress on Adirondack community water system upgrades

Boreas River headwaters. Photo by Phil Brown 9/5/16.The first five rounds of state clean water grant programs have provided more than $58 million directly to Adirondack communities, plus another $94 million in State Revolving Loan Fund low-interest loans, for a total economic boost of $152 million in clean water and drinking water infrastructure improvements since 2015, the Adirondack Council announced today.

The Adirondack Council applauded the fact that, in total, 72 NYS Clean Water and Drinking Water Grants have gone to 36 Adirondack communities, totaling $58,068,291, according to the Council’s report Adirondack Clean Water 2020: Success Made/Wastewater Treatment Needs Ahead.

“The Governor’s and Legislature’s focus on providing clean water funding is helping to protect public health and preserve Adirondack waters from pollution and sewage, while providing much-needed property tax relief to the year-round residents of the Adirondack Park’s small, rural communities,” said Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway. “The Adirondack Park is the source of rivers that serve as drinking water for much of the state. Keeping lakes and rivers pure at the source is the most efficient and least expensive way to protect this priceless resource.”

The Adirondack Council has been working with communities to assist them in obtaining grants and other funding for drinking water and wastewater treatment improvements park-wide.

However, the small communities of the Adirondack Park have – on average – only about 1,000 residents each – not enough to fund the multi-million-dollar water and wastewater systems needed to host more than 12 million annual visitors.

“We are grateful to state government leaders for recognizing that there was a need for financing, especially grants, to assist the small communities of the Park,” Janeway said. “We also congratulate them for recognizing that protecting sources of clean water is a smart investment for the entire state.”

The 36 Adirondack communities that have received grants and loans represent only one-quarter of the park’s 130 villages and hamlets. “Many more communities need other forms of right sized assistance,” said Janeway.

The 9,300-square-mile Adirondack Park is the largest park in the contiguous United States, covering parts of 12 Upstate counties. Only about half is public lands, protected as “forever wild” by the state constitution. The other half consists of private forests, estates, resorts, farms, homes, businesses and communities. Most of the park’s communities are built on the water’s edge, whether it is a lake or river. The goal of the Council’s clean water reports and program is to improve the quality of the park’s major, lived-on waters including Lake George/Lake Champlain watershed; the Hudson, Mohawk, Black, Saranac, Deer, Oswegatchie, St. Regis, Schroon, Ausable, Raquette and Bouquet rivers and the Fulton Chain of Lakes.

Looking Forward, Action Needed

While the over $58 million mentioned above reflects money that has already been awarded to park communities, Janeway said the report also specifically identifies additional wastewater treatment plant and sewer systems needed now for Adirondack Park communities. The report cites an additional 12 communities who have clean water projects nearing the “shovel-ready” phase. Those communities are conducting new engineering studies with funds from the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation’s engineering grant fund program for their clean water infrastructure projects.

Where estimates are available, the report identified over $70 million in project costs for just 12 projects, he said. Also, there is a backlog of many projects listed on the NYS Environmental Facilities Corp.’s Intended Use Plan, which is outlined further on in this report as well as further estimated costs provided by local towns. That brings total cost estimates today to somewhere between $100 million and $117 million, he explained. These communities cannot do it alone Janeway emphasizes and they need additional support from New York State as these costs grow.

The Adirondack Council recognizes the financial crisis facing the state and the report lays out a four-part action plan for State Government to address these continuing clean water project needs in the Adirondack Park:

Invest: Continue annual investments of a billion dollars a year state-wide for New York State’s Clean Water Fund which includes over $400 million for EFC’s Water Infrastructure Improvement Act grant program and close to $100 million NYSDEC’s Water Quality Improvement Program grant program, as well as other important initiatives outlined in the law.
Assist: Help local communities to apply for other sources of state and federal dollars. Additional grant programs are available through the NYS Office of Community Renewal’s Community Development Block Grant Program, USDA Rural Development Department’s Water & Waste Disposal Loan, Grant and Planning Assistance Programs, and local infrastructure assistance grants from the Northern Border Regional Commission.
Improve: Create at EFC a supplemental grant application process in the WIIA program where grants could be extended from 25% up to 60% of project costs within the five-million-dollar cap in the law.
Reconsider Bond: The proposed environmental Bond Act was taken off the November ballot by the Governor due to the Covid-19 related fiscal crisis. He and the Legislature should revisit the issue and consider it for the November 2021 ballot.

“It is important for state officials to understand that – under current grant eligibility formulas – many of these Adirondack communities cannot afford to finance all of the projects they are required to carry out in order to protect water quality and public health,” said Janeway. “A supplemental grant category is needed to help those communities bridge the gap between what is needed to protect public health and what they can afford.”

The report cites examples of communities with affordability gaps from Elizabethtown to St. Armand and beyond.

Photo of Boreas River headwaters/Almanack archive

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