Federal money, state bond act offer hope for communities in need of infrastructure updates
By Zachary Matson
Less than 18 months after the town of St. Armand built a $5.2 million wastewater treatment plant in 2017, state officials directed town leaders to improve it.
The town is still looking for the money. Town Supervisor Davina Winemiller said she won’t ask residents to finance another long-term state loan, this time for disinfection and phosphorus removal. Even at zero percent interest, her constituents can’t afford the debt, she said. They are already stretched, the typical water and sewer bill costing around $1,200 a year.
“You can’t get blood from a stone,” Winemiller said.
The town must also upgrade its sewer collection system in the hamlet of Bloomingdale and it aims to connect a handful of properties with failing septic systems into the municipal sewer. Winemiller said she wants clean water and to protect the environment. But residents are still paying off debt from a decades-old project and construction of the new plant. The math doesn’t work for the roughly 300 people who rely on the town’s sewer and water systems—too much cost spread over too few people.
“They want the towns to have skin in the game,” Winemiller said. “I get it, I do, but you cannot have the same rules for a user base of 250 people as you do for a 100,000-population city. That’s absolutely unfair, and it’s absolutely unreachable.”
Communities across the Adirondacks are in a constant fight to maintain or replace aging infrastructure and find the money to do so. Residents need clean water to drink and functioning sewers to flush. Just as pollutants from wastewater pose serious environmental risks, groundwater and surface water can pose serious health risks if not treated.
One proposed water hookup for about a half dozen homes is estimated at $2 million. Shared by a small number of users, many low-income and elderly, such plans get shelved for being unaffordable.
State applications for clean water grants and loans list nearly $500 million in wastewater and drinking water needs across over 80 projects in the Adirondack Park. Some of the projects are nearing completion, while others are piecing together the funds to start construction, and all are supported with engineering studies. Other projects have yet to make it that far.
In 2016 and 2020 reports, the Adirondack Council situated the infrastructure needs of Adirondack communities in the broader context of protecting the water that so many people use to swim, fish, paddle and enjoy. Adirondack leaders and advocates argue that many communities in the park are hamstrung by their small user bases and emphasize the Adirondacks’ special place as a state park protected for its ecological integrity, recreational value and role in preserving key watersheds. They note that visitors and residents alike benefit from clean water in places like Moose Pond, Cranberry Lake and the Upper Hudson River.
“The Adirondacks is for everyone…and we need to put greater investment there,” said David Miller, a clean water specialist with the Council and author of the infrastructure reports. “Local communities don’t want to not invest in (clean water infrastructure), but they want to invest in it at a scale that’s reasonable to their users and residents.”
The infrastructure includes the sewer systems that collect and clean wastewater and storm runoff before discharge into soil and water, and the drinking water systems that treat and deliver water to park occupants.
In addition, many people pull their water from private wells and dispense waste in septic systems, and advocates hope that some funding can be made available for upgrades. And natural restoration projects like those targeting flood mitigation on the Ausable River could also be in line for future infrastructure money.
Most projects are funded through a mix of grants and low-interest or no-interest loans. The patchwork can be complicated for small communities with limited staff and resources. Small towns rely on county planners to help navigate the financing process. Local communities borrow through the state Environmental Facilities Corporation, which manages state programs targeting water infrastructure, using a combination of direct state and federal money and the returns from previous loans.
Some water systems in the park date back a century or more and require constant maintenance. For example, the village of Saranac Lake regularly surveys and replaces pipes and parts from the 1920s and 1930s.
“We are continually in the process of planning, investigating and doing a project,” said Village Manager John Sweeney. “Things change, you are trying to capture the latest and greatest, what processes work, which ones don’t work even though by design they are supposed to.”
As knowledge of contaminants and health risks grows so do the expectations and requirements of water systems. The village of Lake George recently completed construction of a wastewater treatment plant, replacing a nearly 90-year-old facility that relied on “archaic technology,” said Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky. It couldn’t prevent nitrates from leaching into the lake.
There is reason for hope. Billions in federal money approved last year will target infrastructure, and a $4 billion state environmental bond act up for voter approval in November includes dollars for clean water.
The state will see over $420 million in water-related infrastructure funding under the federal law this year and more will flow over five years. Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal included $500 million in clean water projects and called for at least $650 million of the state bond act to go to water quality improvement.
It’s not clear when or how the federal money will make its way to Adirondack towns and villages, or how far it will go in covering the needs. But the impact could be far reaching. The Environmental Facilities Corp. added 20 new staff members in its budget to help funnel the money to municipalities, and the EFC recently set aside $5 million to help the most financially stressed local governments initiate projects. Nearly half of the federal aid must be grants—rather than loans to be repaid—and advocates hope Adirondack communities will qualify for money for distressed areas.
Michael Hale, executive vice president at EFC, said in January that the corporation was seeking to clarify eligible projects such as work to combat harmful algal blooms.
“We’ve got quite a task in front of us,” Hale told his board.
‘Consequences of inaction’
The Town of Essex needs to fix a water treatment facility at Beggs Point that pumps water from Lake Champlain.
The plant has struggled to treat contaminants during the past 45 years. New filters were installed in 1993 to treat microbial pathogens, and in 2006, the state Department of Health issued the first of more than 20 violations for exceeding allowable contaminant levels. Officials have issued multiple boil water orders due to high turbidity in the lake water, including an order in 2011 that lasted months.
Essex officials and state authorities for years have engaged in a dance of enforcement and encouragement, inching toward a resolution. By 2008, the town was eyeing a shift to a groundwater source. But after exploring over 20 locations and drilling four test wells, the plan ran aground. In 2016, Essex pivoted to an improved method of treating lake water.
“We are going back to the source of Lake Champlain,” said Essex Supervisor Ken Hughes. “It’s a huge headache and it’s very difficult, because all I want is affordable water for my water user—affordable, clean, potable water.”
The plan now is to build a plant at the site of the current treatment facility. Construction of a temporary treatment plant was supposed to start in 2020 but was delayed by the pandemic. Supply shortages and delays have increased the expected cost to $4 million.
Minerva Supervisor Stephen McNally, president of the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, said communities over the years grow less able to afford large infrastructure projects as the debt cost of previous projects mount. The usefulness of upgrades may not outlive the debt.
“Usually before 30 years is up you are borrowing more money to get that system up to DOH compliance,” he said. “It’s a vicious cycle and with no direct grant funding for these water projects it’s very difficult to accomplish anything.”
McNally noted that in Minerva many nearby great camps and second homes are outside of the water district boundary and do not contribute to project costs. The residents within water districts are usually lower income and retired, clustered in the region’s hamlets.
“A lot of these people are least able to afford it,” he said.
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One of the largest recent projects in the park was a new wastewater treatment plant in the village of Corinth along the Hudson River on land purchased at International Paper’s old mill site. Don Rhodes, an engineer and project manager at Laberge Group, who managed the effort, said delays on projects only add to the toll.
“You also need to look at consequences of inaction,” Rhodes said. “The do-nothing option appears to be the easiest … but…always comes at a maintenance burden that is costly and also, eventually, you will have to do the project.”
He said many Adirondack communities need “special attention” because of the tricky economics of large infrastructure projects and the high-value water assets that must be protected.
“The inaction means you need even more support from the taxpayer and the state,” Rhodes said. “So it’s really important for the state to partner with these communities in the Adirondacks.”
The Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan aims to focus development within hamlets. But many of those hamlets do not have the requisite infrastructure to enable new development, hindering efforts to grow the economy and build affordable housing.
“By promoting infrastructure maintenance, you would see more business activity that would help lower the (water) rates,” Rhodes said. “That type of investment I think will pay dividends for the park.”
Residents and local officials in North Creek for decades have wanted to install a sewer network, replacing their old septic systems. Small businesses have dropped plans to expand or haggled with state officials over septic capacities due to the lack of a main sewer system in the small historic business district.
To deal with the problem, residents may form a new sewer district as soon as this winter. The town has scored state grants for the sewer project but more funding is still needed.
Johnsburg Town Supervisor Andrea Hogan, also a member of the Adirondack Park Agency board, said she hopes the federal money could help make the sewer district dream a reality.
“Our Main Street is beautiful, it’s a classic Adirondack main street,” Hogan said. “The hope is with the sewer, economic development can follow.”
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