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New York State on the cusp of historic clean water investment

Riverkeeper’s priorities for water infrastructure and source water protection are being championed at the highest levels, as New York State leaders consider as much as $7 billion in new investments in clean water – a level of state investment not seen for more than a half century. We’re grateful to Governor Andrew Cuomo and Legislative leaders who will finalize the state’s budget over the next five weeks.

In 1965, voters approved the Pure Waters Bond Act, providing $1 billion for wastewater infrastructure. That’s $7.71 billion in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation.

Today, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed the $2 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act that could be approved as part of the annual budget this Spring, and the Legislature has proposed a $5 billion bond act that would require voter approval in November.

How did we get here?

Unfortunately, it took tragedy to draw attention to the investments we need to protect clean water and prevent future crises. Flint, then Hoosick Falls, then Newburgh … as communities lost their clean water to toxic contaminants, politicians started waking up to the sleeping giant represented by our failure to protect water quality at its source, and shore up our aging infrastructure.

Riverkeeper has made the case for greater investments for years, through community science, advocacy and public engagement.  Our priorities include water infrastructure, attention to emerging contaminants and drinking source water protection – all of which are high priorities in Albany.

In 2006, Riverkeeper launched our influential water quality monitoring program, which tests water for the presence of pathogens associated with sewage. Now we are  sampling more than 400 locations throughout the Hudson River Watershed, from Lake Tear of the Clouds to the New York Harbor. Gathering data builds the scientific case for clean water enforcement – especially when 21% of samples from in the Hudson River Estuary fail to meet federal safe-swimming guidelines. The majority of samples gathered today are gathered not by Riverkeeper but by more than 160 community scientists who care about the creek that flows past their house, or the nearest boat launch in the Hudson. Each sample is a vote for clean water.

In 2012, at our urging, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, providing the public with critical information about leaks and overflows of sewage into the waters where we swim, boat and fish.

With these two efforts, Riverkeeper brought the well-defined but neglected problem of aging wastewater infrastructure to the fore. In 2015, Gov. Cuomo and the state legislature agreed to create the New York State Water Infrastructure Improvement Act, setting aside $200 million in state matching grants for clean water infrastructure. We changed the public conversation so that fixing these problems was no longer a question only of dollars – $80 billion for both water and wastewater infrastructure, at latest estimate – but also of environmental quality, and public health.

Our attention to protecting drinking water sources in the Hudson River Watershed began in Newburgh, with community science. By testing the water with local grassroots group, the Quassaick Creek Watershed Alliance, Riverkeeper learned about the decades-long failure to protect Newburgh’s drinking water at its source.  Riverkeeper was party to the landmark agreement that preserved New York City’s drinking water at its source so we could clearly see that the same world-renowned principles of watershed protection that benefited New York City had not been applied statewide. A year before Newburgh’s crisis hit, with the discovery of toxic PFOS, a chemical found in the firefighting foam used at the Stewart Air National Guard Base, Riverkeeper had already identified pollution from the base as a key concern for drinking water protection. When the contamination was confirmed, Riverkeeper quickly focused our work on ensuring the city of 30,000 people – and neighboring communities – receive a robust health response, that the source of toxic contamination is cleaned up, and that a comprehensive plan is developed to protect and restore the streams that feed the reservoir.

Now, water infrastructure, toxic waste remediation and drinking source water protection are top priorities for our state. Riverkeeper won’t rest until these programs are robustly funded, and targeted to have maximum benefit for clean water, and the people – all of us – who rely on it.

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