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New York expands drinking water protections for millions

NY enacts "gold standard" clean water protections

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Last week, New York’s leaders did more to protect the Empire State’s rivers and drinking water than at any other time since the modern environmental movement began more than a half a century ago.

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature have completed a multi-year plan known as the Water Infrastructure Act of 2017 to invest a whopping $2.5 billion in the Empire State’s sagging water infrastructure. This new spending will solve a host of pollution problems emanating from aging water treatment plants, leaking septic systems, old landfills, lead in water supply lines, overburdened stormwater systems and the state’s expanding dairy farm industry.

Also, companion legislation requires virtually all public drinking water supplies to be tested for a broad suite of “emerging” chemical pollutants, the health impacts of which we’re only starting to understand. This new testing program will allow us to identify and deal with all the hidden drinking water contamination “hotspots” experts have warned about and restore confidence in the safety of our water supplies in the wake of the devastating contamination problems identified in recent years in the City of Newburgh and the Village of Hoosick Falls.

Finally, a newly enacted drinking water pollution prevention program, including NY’s first-ever open space acquisition fund focusing exclusively on clean drinking water, will help assure that in the coming years we’ll do far more to keep pollutants out of our water supplies to begin with.

Together, these new enactments make New York the gold standard for state-level programs to improve water infrastructure, monitor drinking water safety and protect public water supplies at their source.

To understand how big these changes are, it’s important to know that more than 2.5 million New Yorkers are served by public drinking water supplies that, due to their relatively small size, have not had to test for emerging contaminants such as the industrial toxics known as PFOS and PFOA that have caused the crises in Hoosick Falls and Newburgh — prompting action to provide alternate water supplies in those communities. Right now, if these chemicals are present in other small public drinking water supplies, we don’t have the information we need to act to protect public health by providing an alternate source of water, or eliminating the source of contamination.

Under the newly enacted suite of laws cited above, the state health department will extend testing for emerging contaminants to all local drinking water systems covering 25 homes or more (currently, such testing only is done on systems serving more than 10,000 people). The state will also establish a Drinking Water Quality Council to determine which additional emerging contaminants should be included in this new comprehensive testing program.

Years of effort went into lobbying for this extraordinary new commitment to clean water. For example, in 2006, after decades of cuts to agency staffing and public investment, Riverkeeper launched our own water quality monitoring program, which now tests for and reports on contamination at more than 400 locations from the Adirondacks to New York Harbor. Over one in five samples gathered by Riverkeeper and our 160 volunteer community scientists contains enough bacteria and other pollution to fail federal safety guidelines.

The growing awareness of how our waters are being contaminated by sewage and other pollutants led, in 2012, to New York’s enactment of the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, assuring public access to critical information about water treatment plant failures and storm-related discharges into the waters where we swim, boat and fish. Then, in 2015, New York created its first Water Infrastructure Improvement Act, which primed the pump for this year’s much larger enactments by setting aside $200 million for state grants to local water infrastructure systems.

New York’s $2.5 Billion Water Infrastructure Investment Act of 2017 and the expanded drinking water safety monitoring program that accompanies it are the culmination of fifty years of clean water advocacy by community activists and groups like Riverkeeper. While President Donald J. Trump proposes deep cuts to environmental spending and other states prepare to follow suit, New York has chosen a better path. Let’s hope that the benefits our residents will now enjoy — cleaner drinking water, safer places to swim and boat, and healthier populations of fish and other aquatic life — will inspire the federal government and other states to go big for clean water, as Governor Cuomo and the New York State legislature did last week.

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