Grant matching rules leave Adirondack towns waiting for water projects
By Ry Rivard
When Johnsburg Supervisor Andrea Hogan heard sewage might be spilling onto her town’s scenic main street, her reaction wasn’t what you’d expect.
“I got so excited,” Hogan said.
Such is the upside-down world of infrastructure funding in the Adirondacks.
For years—as far back as the 1930s—local officials have wanted to install a sewer system in North Creek, the Town of Johnsburg’s main hamlet. And, for just as long, they haven’t been able to get together the money to make it happen.
That means each home and business has to build its own individual septic system. As the years have gone on, the public health standards for such systems have become increasingly hard to meet, particularly for restaurants, which have to assure the state that their septics can handle their customers’ needs. Each business is forced to maintain its own septic system. These systems may not fit on the small downtown lots, and can be too expensive for a small business to afford.
Now, some businesses in downtown North Creek are struggling to stay open, to reopen, or to expand because of the expense of individual septic systems.
A public sewer system, which would allow everyone to share in the cost of treatment, could help.
“A sewer would allow our Main Street to flourish,” Hogan said.
But to get money for a downtown sewer that the small hamlet’s residents and businesses can afford, Hogan needs outside money. To get that money, she needs to show the state or the federal government that the situation is dire. A sewage spill on Main Street or, better yet for the purposes of making that case, a septic leak into the nearby Hudson River would do the trick.
“Right now it would be great to have a septic failure,” she said.
Hogan said she doesn’t want such a failure, but it would help the town make its case in a state where tens of billions of dollars are needed for water and wastewater projects and there isn’t enough to go around.
When the downtown sewage spill turned out to be a false alarm, Hogan said she laughed at herself for getting enthusiastic about the opportunity such a problem could provide. She had to go back to making her case the hard way.
“It’s not for a lack of wanting. Every supervisor before me has done the research,” she said. “But finding funding for these projects is daunting.”
That shows. One day in late spring, she was checking her phone constantly as she showed a reporter around town, waiting for an updated engineering report to show up in her inbox.
Along North Creek’s Main Street, businesses are starting to feel a sense of urgency while the town tries to get money. Since at least 2017, downtown business owners have talked about visits by state Department of Health regulators that endanger their business.
Without an approved way to get rid of customers’ wastewater, eateries could be shut down.
Local officials in Johnsburg and the nearby Town of Chester can rattle off stories about how the lack of sewer systems is stifling economic development: A hotel closed down in part because its owners couldn’t afford a new septic system in Pottersville. A restaurant couldn’t expand in Chestertown. A cake shop couldn’t open in North Creek.
Health officials presumably aren’t trying to hurt businesses. They’re trying to protect public health and the nearby Hudson River from sewage leaking out of old or inadequate septic systems. Hogan said health officials haven’t closed anybody down, but it has been a negotiation and the town has promised it is working hard to come up with the money for a sewer system.
The Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment on the situation in North Creek.
Hogan, who is also a member of the Adirondack Park Agency’s board, said stories like that are “exceedingly typical” across the Adirondacks.
“We’ve been able to hold the department off with promises of a sewer,” Hogan said.
Septic tanks treat sewage from individual properties and drain to the ground. The goal is usually that wastewater goes into and then leaves a septic tank slowly enough that nearby soil will remove the bad stuff before anything dangerous ends up anywhere that can threaten people or the environment. A broken or inadequate septic system will release too much raw sewage too fast, overwhelming the soil’s cleaning power. Septic systems can cost tens of thousands of dollars at once.
A sewer system, by contrast, collects sewage from a whole community and pipes sewage to a central treatment plant to clean up the wastewater by removing most of the bad stuff. Sewer bills can cost hundreds or perhaps a few thousand dollars a year, but the systems take millions to build.
As regulators have begun to understand the dangers of failing septic systems, rules around them have become stricter. That’s a good thing, except if the costs become unbearable.
Part of the problem in North Creek and other places is logistical: On small lots, downtown businesses don’t have the acres of soil needed for traditional septic systems.
Laurie Arnheiter, the owner of Hudson River Trading Co. and an adjacent shop in downtown North Creek, knows firsthand the demand for septic space. A neighboring restaurant put their leach field on her property, meaning her neighbor is slowly releasing wastewater into the yard behind her businesses to be cleaned. By all accounts, the system is well designed, working as intended, and hasn’t caused problems for her or anyone else.
She said she wrote a letter to the state saying the arrangement was OK. But without that awkward arrangement—their wastewater draining onto her land—the restaurant, which has since closed, would have had a problem with the health department and couldn’t reopen.
Arnheiter said it’s hard to do anything without a sewer system in the hamlet.
“We’re here just because I’m stubborn,” she said.
Getting rid of waste isn’t the only problem.
About 20 minutes away in Pottersville, a hamlet in the Town of Chester, local officials aren’t even thinking about trying to get a sewer system. They’re having a tough enough time trying to keep the drinking water flowing.
Jason Monroe has been head of the Pottersville water department there for nearly two decades.
Head of the water department is maybe too fancy a title. For most of those 19 years, Monroe has been the water department. Until recently when an assistant was hired, he was the only person working for the department.
“You can’t go anywhere, (when) it’s only you,” he said.
To Monroe, it feels like every holiday he gets stuck with a problem. This Memorial Day he was stuck working on the system.
The worst time might have been one winter morning. Monroe, who is also the head of the highway department, said he had been out plowing snow off the road all night. Then he got a phone call. There were about 2 feet of ice on a stretch of road, the sign of a major water break. So, as dawn came, he started what became a seven-hour process of pumping out water, digging into the ground, then cutting around the pipe to repair it.
The hamlet’s decades-old water main is made of aging asbestos pipe. Unlike asbestos insulation, asbestos pipe isn’t a hazard, but it’s fragile. That means there’s been break after break after break. That means spill after spill after spill of water. And it means customers don’t have water, again and again.
Monroe guesses he’s had to fix more than 20 line breaks in Pottersville since he started his job.
Driving down the main road, he can point out spots where he has had to repair the pipe. Some stretches of road have been opened up several times because the pipe will break repeatedly in roughly the same place.
Observant drivers will notice several square sections of the road have been dug up and repaved. Each square represents at least one line break, if not several. Along one 100-foot stretch of road, there are three such squares, each representing several different breaks in roughly the same spot.
The stakes are huge each time.
Not only do people need water to drink and to get clean and to cook, but fire departments need water to prevent conflagrations.
Even if the repairs are fast, each break becomes a major hassle once the water is flowing again. Health rules require water districts to issue boil advisories that typically last at least three days because of the concern that low pressure or holes in the pipe can allow in pathogens.
A new water main for Pottersville is expected to cost $1.8 million. Because Pottersville qualifies for special assistance, it may be able to get the federal government to pay for 80 percent of the project, said Town of Chester Supervisor Craig Leggett. But that still means 80 customers will have to come up with $360,000, which is six times the annual budget of the whole water district.
“This is one of the things that people don’t really see,” Leggett said. “You know that there is need, so you go, ‘Well, let’s just get some money to meet that need.’”
It’s not that easy.
Before Pottersville can get much help, it needed money to do an engineering study that it could use to apply for more money to build the actual pipe
In some cases, local governments also need to get grants to help pay for those engineering studies. Again, that’s help paying for a study to make the case that more help is needed. Each grant takes a year or so, at least. That means the lead time on any project can be years and years.
Sometimes even free money from the state isn’t enough.
That’s because most of the state and federal clean-water programs require local governments to have some skin in the game. Some funding programs require local governments to come up with as much as three-fourths of the money to do a project.
“This is the same squeeze that all small hamlets have on their water districts,” Leggett said.
It’s not like people aren’t working on the problem. Starting in about 2015, nearly everyone agrees the state got serious about water-related infrastructure—action prompted in part by the dire situation in Hoosick Falls, a community in Rensselaer County where residents were drinking water poisoned with industrial contamination.
Since then, New York has budgeted billions for grants to assist local governments with clean water infrastructure, and it helps with low-interest or no-interest loans.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation hands out much of that money. In a written statement, the department said it “works closely with communities and our agency partners to repair, replace, and enhance water quality infrastructure and will continue to invest record amounts of funding in projects that will help benefit the environment, public health, and local economies.”
Those record amounts are likely to keep growing in coming years, in part due to promises already made by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration and state lawmakers. Voters also have a chance in 2022 to approve a new bond that would include several hundred million more for municipal water projects.
Yet even several billions of dollars won’t be enough. Tens of billions are likely needed.
Perhaps the best estimate of the statewide need for infrastructure projects comes from a pair of 2008 reports by the Health and Environmental Conservation departments. They reach stark conclusions.
Health officials estimated the state would need at least $39 billion over the next 20 years to repair, replace and update the state’s drinking water infrastructure. Environmental officials found $36 billion was needed for wastewater infrastructure. The total price tag, roughly $80 billion, hasn’t been met in the past 13 years, and the need has only grown because of increased understanding of how trace levels of industrial pollution can have devastating health effects.
“That report likely needs desperately to be upgraded,” said Robert Hayes, a clean water expert at Environmental Advocates NY.
Last fall, the Adirondack Council did a count of its own for water project needs inside the park. Since 2015, the state has given about $60 million to community water and wastewater projects. The Council’s water expert, David Miller, found communities still need at least $150 million more for wastewater projects alone.
“Great things have happened over the past five-year period,” Miller said, “but there is much that needs to be done.”
Many people agree the next several years are going to be crucial to figuring out if state and federal lawmakers will take water issues seriously.
New York voters will be asked in November 2022 to approve a statewide environmental bond that includes money for water-related projects.
And, this year, President Joe Biden proposed a massive federal infrastructure package, which would include over $100 billion nationwide for water-related projects. As the Adirondack Explorer was going to press, the package was still being negotiated and it’s unclear what, if anything, will come of the president’s hopes.
Even if all that money comes through, though, it may not help the smallest Adirondack communities. That’s because they are often expected to come up with matching funds. This helps make sure taxpayers from around the state or around the country aren’t totally subsidizing one community’s water and sewer customers. But in New York and in other rural or low-income communities, the result is that small communities have to spread large expenses over a small group of ratepayers or go without clean water.
“It’s an age-old problem, and we need to be studying it and looking at it for future generations,” said Stephen Acquario, the executive director of the New York State Association of Counties.
The way some of the funding programs work, sometimes they even penalize communities for finding more money. Miller gave an example of one kind of funding where the money the state will provide is reduced if local governments can find more money elsewhere.
There’s an ongoing argument over how much money locals should pay. Part of the challenge in the Adirondacks is that systems must be designed to accommodate influxes of users from all over the state and world.
Local officials have argued that if visitors expect and enjoy the benefits of the Adirondacks’ tradition of uniquely pristine waterways—well then, they should help foot the bill here more than in other places. That might mean dropping or reducing some of the local funding requirements for water projects.
“We should make adjustments in how we invest in Adirondack communities because it benefits not only local residents but the millions of visitors every year,” Miller said.
In North Creek, the hamlet’s ability to offer restaurants and lodging for visitors may depend on when and how much help it can get for a sewer system. The system is expected to cost over $8 million, about twice the town’s annual budget. It can’t build that system unless its residents won’t share too much burden. Local officials set a goal for that burden: no more than about $800 a year.
“We don’t pull the trigger until we know we have enough grant funding to make it affordable for everyone in town,” Supervisor Hogan said.
So, the wait continues.