Investing in Clean Water

Three years ago, we were fighting just to have clean water funding brought to the table. In fact, in 2014, Governor Cuomo attempted to raid a clean water infrastructure fund to aid in the construction of a bridge. Not long after that, the Governor included $0 for water infrastructure in his proposed SFY 2015-16 budget, despite an enormous need statewide to fix our pipes. 

Today, we find ourselves in a radically different place thanks to the robust campaign for water infrastructure funding, led by Environmental Advocates, that includes dozens of environmental, labor, and clean water partners.

In 2015, the legislature answered the call by nudging the Governor to create the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2015 (WIIA) – a first-of-its kind water infrastructure grant program in New York State. The WIIA made it possible for communities that couldn’t ordinarily afford it to fix their pipes to improve access to clean drinking water. The WIIA achieved impressive results and last year garnered increased funding from the Governor. We're looking to make that success even greater yet.

Politicians from both sides of the aisle are now one-upping each other to offer billions in funding for water projects. Not only that, but the Governor and legislators are looking to come up with more effective ways to protect water quality.

The Governor’s proposed SFY 2017-18 budget offers some exciting opportunities for water. Here’s some of what’s been included:

  1. $2 Billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act (S.2004-A/A3004-A and S.2008-A/A3008-A): The Governor’s proposed SFY 2017-18 budget includes a $2 billion proposal ($400 million for each of the next five years) for clean water projects. The program would not only fund water infrastructure – it would also fund land acquisition projects, source water protection, the replacement of lead service lines, and more.
  2. The Emerging Contaminant Monitoring Act (S.2007/A.3007): Currently, only municipalities with over 10,000 residents have to test for emerging contaminants – this legislation would require all public water systems to test for emerging contaminants that would be determined by the Department of Health (DOH).
  3. The Residential Well Testing Act (S.2007/A.3007): Private wells currently have to undergo little to no testing. This legislation would require water quality testing for private wells prior to and as a condition of any residential property sale. 

The Governor’s proposals offer a great start for the legislature to improve and build upon, and they have already offered a couple proposals of their own:

  1. $5 Billion Clean Water Bond Act (S.3772-A/A.5467): Senator Hannon and Assemblyman Englebright introduced a bill that would create a $5 billion bond act for water initiatives. Of the $5 billion, $2.5 billion would be available for water infrastructure projects, and $1.5 billion would be available for other clean water protection initiatives.
  2. Drinking Water Quality Institute (S.3773/A.5473): Senator Hannon and Assemblyman Englebright introduced a bill in the wake of the water crises in communities like Hoosick Falls, Newburgh, and Petersburgh that would create a drinking water quality institute within DOH. The institute would come up with recommendations to present to the Department on water quality.

Looking at all of these proposals together, New York’s leaders have brought billions to the table for water infrastructure and other initiatives to protect water, and three different proposals that could significantly improve how New York responds to water contamination crises and get the state to do more to proactively prevent such crises to begin with. However, these proposals need fine tuning to make them as effective as possible. For example, we know that water infrastructure alone needs at least $800 million in grant funding annually to catch up with the estimated need of $80 billion over the next 20 years. 

The Governor’s emerging contaminant legislation and the Legislature’s Drinking Water Quality Institute bill are steps in the right direction, but in order to ensure public health is protected in the true spirit of the legislation, fine-tuning must include the following:

  • Require the emerging contaminant lists to be regularly reviewed, updated, and regulated on an annual basis to ensure that emerging contaminants are continually accounted for, as there are more than 80,000 unregulated chemicals on the market today. 
  • ​A requirement to promptly notify residents when a contaminant is discovered in their water at levels exceeding the established Maximum Contaminant Level or Notification Level, and a notification that they should cease drinking water until contaminant levels have been safely reduced or eliminated. This did not occur in Hoosick Falls, which caused residents to continue drinking PFOA-contaminated water.
  • Require all data, including community testing results, to be publicly available and easily downloadable on a newly-created website. This will create a level of transparency that will allow families to make informed decisions regarding their drinking water. 

Everything we want to see accomplished for water can be done through the State’s budget process. In early March we can expect to see one-house budgets from the Assembly and Senate, and we’ll be examining them to see how much is invested in water infrastructure, and if bills like the Drinking Water Quality Institute are included and what the details mean for all New Yorkers. The final steps come when the leader of the Senate, the Speaker of the Assembly, and the Governor meet to negotiate the final budget, and legislators debate and vote on the budget bills, which is expected to happen by 11:59PM on March 31st. 

Environmental Advocates will be working alongside local elected officials and residents harmed by contaminated water, and partner organizations in the upcoming weeks to make sure New York’s final budget for SFY 2017-18 is a record one for clean water.