Maintaining municipal water systems is more difficult than it seems

Release Date: 
Mon, 09/28/2015

Patricia M. Pastella, Development Authority of the North Country water quality division manager, stands at Warneck Pump Station in Watertown.

Carrie Tuttle, director of engineering for the Development Authority of the North Country, has a running joke about municipal water system maintenance: “No one cares until you turn on your faucet and there is no water.”

The reason, she said, is that most water infrastructure is underground and out of sight, making it harder to see developing problems. And, if a municipality does not assess an aging infrastructure frequently, problems are more likely.

But maintaining water systems isn’t cheap. DANC Chief Executive Officer James W. Wright said municipal water treatment plants, for instance, typically have heavy price tags.

“You have to look at it from a village board’s perspective. A wastewater or water treatment plant is probably the single largest expenditure they are going to encounter,” he said. “A multi-million dollar project, every 20 years, is not the first thing on everybody’s mind. Municipal officials, who have to deal with those problems, try to maintain as low a rate as possible. That’s what you see occurring in many instances, and large capital expenses get deferred.”

For 2016, New York state is proposing $443 million in Drinking Water State Revolving Funds be set aside for local governments to use. Additionally, the state will set aside $200 million over the next three years.

Since 2011, the state Environmental Facilities Corp. has provided more than $53 million in low-interest or interest-free loans to 16 communities in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties for drinking water projects. To tap into this funding, projects must be added to an annual list that ranks projects based on public health priority. Even projects that aren’t included on the list may still apply for low-interest funding.

DANC also consults with municipalities in all three counties to assist in water system management, but Ms. Tuttle said it’s up to the communities to reach out to DANC for assistance. Unless they are willing to ask, she said, it’s hard to tell which municipalities are in need and what the exact costs will be.

But that has changed in recent years. Ms. Tuttle said more communities are catching on to the aging infrastructure, and DANC is seeing an increasing number of consultation requests to help find solutions.

Local issues

A few local municipalities are taking steps to upgrade drinking water and wastewater systems.

The town of Adams, which has struggled to keep up a steady water flow, is trying to utilize two unused wells at the Adams Country Club golf course, which would produce 1.5 million gallons of water per day. Right now, the village system that supplies water to the town is running up against an insufficient water supply. Town Supervisor David W. Kellogg said using the wells would require water quality testing. After that, the town would need to hire engineers to assess the system and devise a plan.

Mr. Kellogg said he doesn’t know what kind of costs the town will be facing or how long it will before the wells can go into service. However, he anticipates a lengthy process, and he said he hopes the village of Adams can come on board to contribute funding.

The water system in the town of Orleans has been hurt by contamination linked to Department of Transportation salt storage barns on Route 12. The town has taken a few steps toward reversing the problem, including a water line connection to Alexandria Bay and a possible new water treatment plant estimated to cost more than $13 million.

The town did receive $2.5 million from the Environmental Facilities Corp. in August. The funding will be used for water treatment plant upgrades and the replacement of 16,000 feet of sewer lines.

Orleans Supervisor Kevin Rarick could not be reached for comment.

In the town of Pamelia, residents on Hinds Road have recently complained about dry groundwater wells, causing homeowners to drill down deeper. The town draws water from Highland Meadows Golf Course on Route 342, which is blended with DANC water. In a previous Times report, town officials said more water was being drawn from the well to offset contaminated water in Watertown lines, but the well could have led to problems faced by homeowners. The Department of Health recently urged the town to blend more DANC water with less well water to even out the two.

RURAL VS. URBAN

The state could be looking at $22 billion in improvement costs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

DANC Water Quality Division Manager Patricia M. Pastella said urban areas with older systems likely would need the most work. Cities, such as Syracuse and New York City, have systems that date back 100 years, and more extensive replacements are needed.

On the other hand, water infrastructure in rural areas may, in some cases, be newer. Farmlands relied on water wells for a longer period.

DANC’s own infrastructure is fairly new. It constructed its sewer line, which runs between Fort Drum and Watertown, in 1987. The line also has districts in the towns of Champion, LeRay and Pamelia. Even with its water treatment systems in operation for just a few decades, Ms. Tuttle said, pieces of the system are replaced and upgraded regularly. DANC also uses a remote monitoring program to keep a close eye on the system, along with cameras to see the lines up close.

PLANNING AHEAD

For municipalities without up-to-date equipment and maintenance, Ms. Tuttle said, keeping water infrastructure properly maintained means making long-term investments rather than relying on short-term fixes.

Outside funding for these projects has changed over the years. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, Ms. Tuttle said, water projects were almost 100 percent grant-funded. Today, funding for these projects is more loan-based. Ms. Tuttle said a good project now could be 25 percent funded by a grant while the rest is from loans. Because of that, municipalities have to be more willing to adjust water rates accordingly.

Mr. Wright said today’s competitive funding options are through either the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the state EFC. Funding is awarded based on the ability of the municipality to pay for improvement, Mr. Wright said. To get a piece of this funding, municipalities need higher water rates.

So, if a municipality has kept its water rate low over a number of years, its funding options are slim.

“Now they realize that they have millions of dollars of reinvestment, but their rates aren’t set anywhere near where they need to be to make them eligible. Sometimes before we can even get to the point where we can apply for money, we have to do a lot of up-front work.”

That’s where education comes in.

Part of Ms. Tuttle’s job with DANC is consulting with communities to lay out long-term water investment plans, telling leaders that they cannot wait to take action until a disaster strikes.

Instead of spending a single, sizeable lump sum to fix an emergency, municipalities should be spreading their maintenance costs out over time, she said.

“A lot of that gets back to asset management planning, and then setting rates appropriately so that communities are putting away the right amount of funds in replacement reserves and charging the right amount for their water and their sewer,” Ms. Tuttle said.


Reproduced with permission from the Watertown Daily Times.  The full article can be found here.

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