leaky, localities deal with old water systems
ALBANY, N.Y. -- Leaky, rusty, busted or old, lines bringing
drinking water to many New Yorkers have seen better days.
New York City relies on an aqueduct constructed when
Woodrow Wilson was president. Across the state, Buffalo
uses a 150-year-old cast iron distribution pipe. Communities
in between suffer with water distribution systems that
are cobbled, clogged or contaminated. Local officials,
with little money to tackle these costly problems, are
replacing pipes on a piecemeal basis or borrowing money
for large-scale upgrades.
"The systems clearly are aging," said Sarah
Meyland, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for
the Environment. "There's no overall systematic replacement
of the pieces. It's pretty much on an as needed basis."
There are 3,270 community water systems in the state,
from New York City's vast network serving 9 million people
to systems that serve a few dozen. Pipes were laid for
many of these systems during the state's growth spurt
a century ago. Many more date to just after World War
II. A lot of the original lines and treatment plants remain
in service today.
Tonawanda has a treatment plant about 100 years old and
pipes averaging about half that age. The system springs
two to three leaks a week during cold snaps, said city
engineer Jason Zdrojewski. Tonawanda residents this year
voted to transfer the system to the Erie County Water
Authority, which will perform upgrades.
"Eventually, clamps will only take you so far,"
In Buffalo, public works commissioner Joseph Giambra
estimates that almost a quarter of the water running through
his city's pipes leaks out. He said it gets to a point
where it's less expensive to let a small leak go than
rip up a street. (There's still plenty of water though:
Buffalo get its drinking water from Lake Erie).
New York state is far from unique. The federal Environmental
Protection Agency last fall projected that capital and
operating needs for drinking water systems nationwide
could outpace funding by billions of dollars over then
next two decades.
"It's always a money issue," said John Mokszycki,
water superintendent for Greenport in rural Columbia County.
Mokszycki fixes what he can when he can on a system that
features lines laid during the Depression.
Strains on local water officials have been exacerbated
further by increased security enacted after the Sept.
11 terrorist attacks. Water systems serving more than
3,300 people had to submit emergency response plans to
the state this year.
Another issue is keeping water pure enough to meet tougher
federal water standards designed to protect against microscopic
parasites like cryptosporidium.
In Glens Falls, state health officials recently urged
local residents with weak immune systems to boil their
water before drinking after traces of giardia and cryptosporidium
were detected. The city is building a filtration plant.
Nearby, the tiny village of Salem will start laying lines
this spring for a new water system to serve fewer then
500 customers after the discovery of bacteria in local
water brought pressure from the state health officials.
The pricetag: $4.9 million.
Salem is relying heavily on grants and low-interest loans.
Like some 200 other municipalities in New York, the village
was able to tap into a fund set up in 1996 under the federal
Safe Drinking Water Act. The state-managed revolving fund
has doled out $1 billion in low-interest loans and _ for
the most financially hard-up towns _ grants to help finance
improvements to mains, treatment plants and storage tanks.
The state is responsible for about a fifth of the funding.
Sarah Meyland said the money for communities to upgrade
water distribution systems is out there, although sometimes
the political will is not. Water systems are by their
nature out of sight and underground _ and therefore off
the radar screen when it come to competing for funds,
"It's completely the lowest priority you can imagine,"
Meyland said. "Because the bridge is visible, the
potholes in the street are visible, that's where the first