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Clean water and the environment still a priority despite NYS’s budget squeeze 

Welcome back to the New York State budget season! In my humble opinion, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. And you can rest assured that Riverkeeper is working tirelessly to ensure that clean water and habitat restoration priorities are included in the state’s budget for the next fiscal year.

The challenges of putting together a budget during the economic downturn of COVID-19 cannot be overstated. Tax revenue for the state fell precipitously as the virus spread across the state and country. Last year, the legislature granted Governor Cuomo extraordinary emergency powers to make mid-year budget changes without having to consult the legislature. One of our biggest priorities for 2020 unfortunately collided with the budgetary realities. The $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act was approved to appear on the 2020 November ballot, however, the NYS Budget Director used his authority to pull the initiative from the ballot for financial reasons. This was disappointing to say the least. However, as the Biden Administration and Congress move ahead with a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 economic stimulus package, Riverkeeper hopes that federal state and local aid will help New York’s budget get back on track and a multi-billion dollar bond act back on the ballot for November 2021 or 2022. 

Below you will find a summary of the state budget priorities Riverkeeper is advocating for this year. Governor Cuomo’s budget includes key funding categories such as the Clean Water Infrastructure Act and the Environmental Protection Fund at levels we have supported in previous years. This was not at all assured and speaks to the influence and breadth of the environmental and clean water movement in New York. Now we are pressing ahead with our advocacy so that by the budget deadline of April 1st, environmental funding remains a top priority for Governor Cuomo and our state legislators. Look for a message in your inbox soon from me, asking you to join Riverkeeper in calling for these priorities to stay in the budget for the next fiscal year. 

Riverkeeper urges Governor Cuomo and the legislature to include the $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act in the final budget. While the Hudson River Estuary has become cleaner in the past several decades, at the same time the Hudson’s most iconic fish species have experienced dramatic declines. Of nineteen species examined, one species has left the Hudson, two are on the verge of extirpation, one shows a slight uptick, and the rest show significant to severe declines. An analysis by the firm AECOM found that bond act spending could support 65,000 jobs injecting $6.7 billion in total project spending. This includes $1.6 billion in clean water projects resulting in 18,000 statewide jobs, $1 billion in projects to fight climate change supporting 11,500 jobs, and $3.25 billion in restoration and flood reduction projects supporting 30,600 jobs. The bond act, while not included in Governor Cuomo’s budget proposal this year, it presents an opportunity to make investments that will benefit New York’s environment for generations to come. 

New York State has over an $80 billion need for water infrastructure investments over the next 20 years, the largest in the nation. The infrastructure investments made through the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act (WIIA) via the Clean Water Infrastructure Act (CWIA) are the biggest New York State investment in this critical priority in a generation. In his 2019 State of the State, the Governor’s proposed doubling of the commitment to CWIA to $5 billion marks a historic commitment to protect New York’s waters. This year’s proposal for an additional $500 million continues to make good on the Governor’s commitment to appropriations. However, a recent report from Comptroller DiNapoli indicates that less than 11 percent of the $3.9 billion appropriated has been spent. As of March 11, 2020 only $420 million have been spent on infrastructure projects. It is important to note that there is a lag between when grant funds are awarded and when the local government receives state funds. To date, the Hudson River Watershed has $255 million in grants for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure improvements have been announced.  We urge Governor Cuomo to speed up the disbursement of infrastructure funding, while continuing to support this essential funding. 

We must increase DEC staff and budget after decades of attrition, in order to meet the growing and complex water challenges the agency faces. As DEC’s capital budget and mandates have increased, their staffing numbers have declined. Between 2009 and 2020, DEC lost over 700 staffers or around 20% of its workforce. The DEC Division of Water has experienced the steepest decline over a 10-year period, with a loss of 59 positions, or 21%. The Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources has seen a decline of 58 staff positions since 2008, a 13% drop in staff resources. Environmental Conservation Police Officers have experienced a loss of 44 positions as of October 2018 from 333 in 2008 a 13% drop in staff resources. The DEC is increasingly asked to fill in the vacuum but they are underfunded and staffing needs are greater than ever. 

The historic sustained funding level of the EPF should be maintained in the SFY 2021-2022 budget at $300 million. Below are specific line items Riverkeeper strongly supports. 

For 30 years, the Hudson River Estuary Program has provided indispensable technical assistance and community grants to support a model, stakeholder-driven collaborative management program for the region. Both the Hudson River Estuary Program and the Mohawk Basin Program will begin implementing new Action Agendas in this fiscal year. Riverkeeper encourages stable funding for the Hudson River Estuary Program, including $1 million for the Mohawk Basin Program.

The Waterfront Revitalization Program is an important source of community-led watershed management funding for communities statewide. The Program funds community grants to plan for and implement both waterfront revitalization and watershed management projects. Riverkeeper supports the Governor’s proposal to increase this line by $400,000.

The Water Quality Improvement Project Program along with the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act, a key source of needed grants to support community investments in wastewater infrastructure. Significant Clean Water Infrastructure Act funds are spent via the Water Infrastructure Improve Act (WIIA), but the terms of Water Quality Improvement Program grants are more favorable to communities, typically allowing for less local match and greater state investment per project. Within the WQIP program we support the Source Water Assessments line at $5 million into the next fiscal year. 

Learn more about our policy agenda for the 2021-22 legislative session here. 

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