The Water Quality and Contamination report released Jan. 3 by the New York State Senate’s Standing Committees on Health and Environmental Conservation highlights some important issues related to how the State responds to emerging contaminants in drinking water, but it fails to address needed preventative steps to protect drinking water supplies from contamination in the first place.
We anticipate proposals coming from the Governor’s office and the State Assembly as well. It’s appropriate that our state government understands the urgency and importance of drinking water quality protection, after crises in Hoosick Falls, Newburgh and elsewhere, and we should expect nothing less than a strong set of new policies to protect drinking water based on the multi-tiered approach our state pioneered to worldwide acclaim with the protection of New York City’s drinking water supply.
The Senate report usefully focuses on several priority issues, including the need for increased investments through a Clean Water Bond Act, better integration of drinking water protection between multiple agencies, and improvements in early detection and response to emerging contaminants.
These are important elements of how a state responds to the very serious problem of water contamination. The need for drinking and wastewater infrastructure investments in New York State exceeds $80 billion, and that estimate doesn’t include advanced drinking water filtration that may be needed in far more locations to protect against emerging contaminants, nor many wastewater needs that have yet to be fully documented. Further, while the federal share of investment in local roads and bridges is nearly 30%, local and state governments currently shoulder more than 95% of the cost of drinking water and wastewater projects. Public drinking water supplies in as many as 2,700 communities statewide serving 2.5 million people have not been tested for so-called emerging contaminants, such as PFOA and PFOS. Of more than 80,000 chemicals in use, fewer than 100 are actively monitored through federal Safe Drinking Water Act programs, with a handful of emerging contaminants monitored only in larger communities. Further, virtually the entire state Superfund capital budget allocation was consumed by the response to Hoosick Falls and Newburgh in the last year, and there is every likelihood, unfortunately, that there will be more contamination discovered as the state’s Water Quality Rapid Response Team continues to investigate potential sources of emerging contaminants.
While the report focuses on a real problem – identifying and responding to contamination after it has occurred – it spends too little attention on how to prevent contamination in the first place. Since analyzing the underlying causes of Newburgh’s drinking water crisis, Riverkeeper has been calling for a robust new commitment to Drinking Source Water Protection that will protect the lands and streams that naturally filter drinking water in communities across New York State. With New York City’s water supply, our state has been a leader in developing and implementing the techniques to protect world class drinking water quality. Protecting and restoring healthy watersheds protects drinking water quality.
The lessons we’ve learned must be applied statewide in responding to drinking water crises. In New York, adequate drinking water protection will take intermunicipal cooperation, and our state will have to use existing tools, as well as develop new ways to ensure that water supplies are protected at their source. With 80,000 unregulated contaminants in use, and fewer than 100 of them monitored routinely, there’s no amount of end-of-pipe testing or Superfund response that can provide the public with the kind of high quality drinking water that comes from well-protected source waters. A Clean Water Bond Act, such as that proposed by the Senate, must include not only funding for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure such as treatment technologies and piping, but also “natural infrastructure” that provides the most cost-effective protection for high quality water, and investments in human resources, data management and other programs. (And it cannot take the place of the successful Water Infrastructure Improvement Act, which should be increased to $800 million annually to, over time, relieve the backlog in needed water infrastructure repairs and upgrades.)
The report also fails to recognize that severe cuts to staff and budget of the Department of Environmental Conservation over decades have severely eroded the agency’s ability to enforce the Clean Water Act and other clean water laws that can prevent crises and restore polluted waterways. The Division of Water has 100 fewer staff members and less than one-tenth the budget, adjusted for inflation, that it did 25 years ago. To name just two consequences: Our state has the worst backlog in the nation in its pollution discharge permitting program, and we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of polluters in “significant non-compliance” with their permits. These consequences are not the result of poor performance of highly capable DEC staff, but of inadequate investments by state leaders. The crises we face today are in no small part a result of decisions made over many years that have crippled essential services provided by our DEC. We have to restore funding and staffing for DEC to better empower those with the expertise to prevent water pollution.
Finally, despite its emphasis on reacting to contamination, the report fails to lay out a sufficient plan to ensure that communities exposed to toxic contamination receive comprehensive biomonitoring and long-term medical monitoring. These demands have been made clear by communities affected by contamination.