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Clean Water: What to watch for in NYS budget

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislative leaders are in the final stages of negotiating the next New York State budget, with potentially historic levels of new funding for clean water projects. Riverkeeper has been advocating for several measures. Here’s what we will be watching for as the budget negotiations come to a close:

Reducing sewage overflows and leaks

Since 2006, Riverkeeper’s water quality monitoring program has highlighted the need to stop sewage overflows and leaks that introduce harmful bacteria and other disease-causing pathogens where we swim boat and fish, and that threaten fish and other wildlife by consuming the dissolved oxygen they need to survive. In 2012, we reached a milestone with the passage of the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law, which further increased public pressure, by making the public broadly aware of the frequency and severity of untreated sewage discharges to our waters. In 2015, Riverkeeper advocated for passage of the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act, and in 2016, for its funding to be increased, providing $400 million over three years to critical drinking water and sewer improvement projects statewide, including significant new investments to stop sewage overflows in the Hudson River Watershed.

This year, the Clean Water Infrastructure Act, if approved, would provide $2 billion or more over five years for water infrastructure and other priorities, multiplying the state investment in grants to communities by as much as a factor of five. That increase is needed, as the state faces an $80 billion need for investments over the next 20 years.

Protecting drinking water at its source

Since nearly 30,000 people in the City of Newburgh lost the use of their primary reservoir to toxic contamination, Riverkeeper has highlighted the shocking gaps in our safety net for protecting drinking water at its source – the rivers, streams and wetlands that feed our reservoirs and recharge our groundwater. We have advocated for applying lessons from the world-renowned effort to protect New York City’s drinking water supply across the state, with a multi-faceted approach that includes land conservation, green infrastructure, stream restoration and other strategies.

State leaders are considering new investments to help communities better understand and manage their drinking source waters as part of the Environmental Protection Fund, and to implement projects that will protect and restore these critical pieces of natural infrastructure as part of the Clean Water Infrastructure Act.

Responding to Wallkill River pollution

Since 2012 Riverkeeper has coordinated a community science project on the Wallkill River, a nearly 90-mile-long tributary to the Hudson, and found that 87 percent of samples fail to meet safe-swimming guidelines, and average levels of contamination are 10 times federal criteria. To build momentum for solutions to the river’s problems, Riverkeeper helped to catalyze the creation of the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance in 2015, and continues to support the citizens group. A Harmful Algal Bloom affecting 30 miles of the river for 60 days in 2016, documented thoroughly by Riverkeeper and the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance, heightened public attention to the river’s degraded water quality.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has created a plan to respond to the river’s problems with an intensive two-year study that will help to answer persistent questions about the major sources of contamination, and the strategies that may best be applied to improve water quality. We’re advocating for the state to include funding for this important study.

Core clean water programs

While we unfortunately have little hope that state leaders will heed our call to reverse the significant long-term decline in staff and resources available to the Department of Environmental Conservation, we are hopeful that funding for a number of important programs that support clean water projects will be increased.

These include the Hudson River Estuary, Mohawk Basin, Water Quality Improvement programs, and programs to help farms and communities reduce stormwater runoff-related pollution, and to invest in waterfront and watershed planning and implementation. Each is funded as part of the Environmental Protection Fund (supported by advocates and leaders alike) at $300 million annually.

None of these substitute completely for robust enforcement of the Clean Water Act and Environmental Conservation Law – which will only be possible when state leaders start to restore staff to the Division of Water and throughout DEC. But each provides critical resources for managing and improving conditions in the Hudson River Watershed.

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