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.
The real problem isnt so much the lack of funds to replace failed systems as it is the lack of requirements to properly maintain systems. Its discouraging to see how many people fail to have their system pumped every few years (for a few hundred dollars) and then are surprised when it eventually fails. Frequently these are lakeside properties where the owners could readily afford it. Municipalities should require proof of pumping every 5 years at least. Why should landowners who fail to maintain their systems receive taxpayer dollars to correct a problem they caused. However, I agree that this is a huge problem in the Adirondacks and have witnessed first hand the resulting water quality impacts.
I’d argue your approach of needing to show proof of pumping every 5 years is too broad. There are many variables – size of the tank, number of people living in a residence, year round or seasonal residence, etc. Requiring proof of inspection per some amount of time might be a better argument.
I like the idea of inspecting and educating property owners. Smitty is correct that some polluting owners are wealthy, I knew a couple of those who recently spent about $30,000 each to upgrade. I have in mind some other folks on the same waterbody who absolutely cannot afford that kind of investment. Inspections would shame the wealthy and could identify folks who want to upgrade and can’t afford it without help.
Of course taxpayers will support the wealthy lakeside home owners to replace their failing septic systems.
Thank you for this excellent article.
Can you tell me how I can find out if any funds were allocated to Franklin County ?
Phil, Franklin County is currently not eligible. Here is a link to description of program and eligible counties on NYSEFC web-site : https://efc.ny.gov/septic-replacement
I just wrote the Osgood Pond Association who had a similar question and urged them to work with Franklin County to petition DEC to add waters bodies in your county/area as eligible. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to see my full response to Osgood Pond Association. Many Thanks. Dave
Thanks for this article which says it all, yet again. Failed and failing septic systems are degrading pure water throughout the Adirondack Park.
Perhaps this year more septic funding will flow north.
As a design professional & practitioner, I agree. You would not believe some of things I’ve seen over the years even now 40 years after the Clean Water Act. The funding would help the disadvantaged but should not go to the “well to do”, however that is defined. Perhaps, it should be via a need-based application process? Still there are no checks and balances on users, many of whom would likely object as an invasion of property rights but in the end we all have a fiduciary responsibility to do our part to protect the environment especially our water resources in this case.
How gracious and helpful. Thank you, Dave
Please let me know if you are ever heading to downtown Onchiota.
The problem remains what is a “failed septic system”. To some it is a system that is 30 years old. To some it is a system that was built to previous standards. Others thinks because a hot spot is found in a lake every system nearby must be replaced. There a a multitude of reason others give. It is non on these. I too often see some treat septic systems like the bogie man. You can’t see him but he is going to get you. Others are like chicken little and the sky is falling. Too many want to boil the ocean. Let’s get start by finding systems that have hydraulically failed, meaning the discharge is flowing on the surface. Physical inspection, including your nose, and dye testing can find these. Because too many want to boil the ocean nothing get done.
Why is the money going to be “given” to anyone?
Loan it to them, on a no interest loan that places a lien on the property so taxpayers are guarantied to get their money back. That i can get behind.
I love the adirondacks, and agree, pollution of any kind needs to be addressed. But this is private property owners that personally benefit from other peoples money!
I for one am sick of it. And we need to be voice our disapproval to end it!
Hmm, clean water in the ADKs is a “public good” thus a good argument can be made for public funding or assistance with septic systems that impact ADK water bodies. While taxpayers routinely pay for municipal sewer installation and connections on a per property special assessment, the “public good” aspect of same presumably is not as wide reaching as it is in the case of properties that could (or do) impact water bodies. Thus the argument for taxpayer money to assist (encourage) upgrades and fixes to existing systems in the ADKs using taxpayer dollars without strings attached or ability to pay rules. Personally, I don’t count other people’s money and I don’t believe in allocating taxpayer funds, at least in this arena, on the basis of some needs based assessment – government is already too cumbersome, inefficient and full of corruption, ineptitude, etc., etc. If there is consensus that clean water is worth the cost of trying to keep it clean, then make the public funds available simple – on demonstrated need for improvement to existing failed or antiquated systems that impact water bodies. Now, for my real question: Why the limit to single source aquifer water bodies? That one does not make sense to me. I suppose I can see the need to address the most vulnerable water bodies first, but clean water is clean water and places like Lake George and Long Lake would seem to be just as important from a public good standpoint as those single source aquifer water bodies are.
I have replaced 2 in the past couple years. Do I qualify for reimbursement?
Have to check with your County to see if it participates and if you are on an eligible water body, but regardless I do not believe past work qualifies.
I didn’t know that millions were being invested in the federal pipes. My own tank might need a cleaning. I’ll have to consider hiring a contractor to do an inspection.