By David Miller, Adirondack Council Clean Water Program Coordinator
Failing septic systems are degrading pure waters in the Adirondack Park. Many of these waterbodies serve as drinking water supplies for the Park’s year-round and seasonal residents and visitors.
Thankfully, the New York State historic Clean Water Fund includes septic replacement grant funds for homeowners. Under this program, money is allocated in bulk amounts to counties that then provide grants to homeowners who have applied for them. Homeowners can receive up to $10,000 in these grants to help them pay for their septic system replacements, which typically range between $15,000 and $30,000. These grants make an enormous difference to residents in the rural counties by making septic improvements affordable.
There is a great need for this funding in the Adirondacks, but the question remains why so little of this money has actually made its way to the Park.
Good News in this Year’s Budget
New York State legislative leaders and Gov. Kathy Hochul recently passed a state budget that includes an additional $500 million for clean water grants statewide. The final budget also included a $4.2 million Clean Air, Clean Water, and Green Jobs Bond Act that, if approved by voters in November, will provide not less than $200 million for wastewater infrastructure projects.
The Adirondacks Still Need More
While over the past five years, the Clean Water Fund has appropriated $150 million statewide, only $30 million has been allocated to eligible counties to use and administer. It has been well documented that septic systems have aged and are failing throughout the Adirondack Park as indicated in the Adirondack Council’s 2021 report, Protecting Adirondack Waters from Septic System Pollution.
Groups like the Lake George Association and other lake associations throughout the region have made the clarion call for help to address this need. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the state Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC), who jointly determine annual allocations of this money, have an opportunity to prioritize getting funds to Adirondack communities to replace or upgrade these systems along our Adirondack lakes, ponds, and rivers.
In fact, in 2021, only approximately $330,000 of these funds were given to Warren County, but the requests for these grants were three times higher than the amount received. Warren County, in turn, shut down the application process or more would have been requested. Even less money was allocated to Essex County, which also had needs far greater than the funds made available.
Adirondack Projects Need Funding Now
Since the program’s inception, millions of dollars have already been allocated to Suffolk County on Long Island. This funding is warranted, and the program has been touted as highly successful. Adirondack communities have not received similar attention. To add to this growing need, septic system inspection programs are being developed and implemented along waterbodies like Lake George and in Adirondack counties such as Warren County. Over the next year, the backlog in local need for these grant funds to homeowners will only grow exponentially when these programs are put in place. So, when will New York State release available funds and increase its allocations to Adirondack counties and expand the program throughout the region? As Governor Hochul articulated in her State of the State message earlier this year, the need is now, and there is no reason to wait to act.
It’s Time to Act
Septic system failures are a major source of pollution and contribute to the growing number of harmful algae blooms notifications in our waterbodies across the Adirondack Park. Residents understand the importance of clean water. They care about the water quality of nearby lakes, rivers, and ponds and want to protect them. They want to do the right thing by upgrading their septic systems but need the available financial support to make it happen.
Now it’s time for New York State to set forth an Adirondack Septic System Replacement Initiative that matches the true need. Making the necessary funds available to Adirondack counties and their residents will improve water quality and follow the intent of the law. The next annual statewide allocation of these funds to eligible counties is scheduled for later this spring. These septic replacement grant funds are sitting there, and now is the time for the Empire State to act and actually use them.
David Miller has been the Council’s Clean Water Program Coordinator since 2016 as a consultant and joined the Adirondack Council staff in January of 2021 as a part-time employee. He has researched and written reports aimed toward clean water solutions for the Adirondacks. David works with other stakeholders on clean water infrastructure needs and septic system pollution issues in the Park. He also assists with the Council’s road salt pollution campaign and the need for expanded water quality monitoring programs in the Park.