“Foundations” is a monthly series examining the fundamentals of local government, talking about how government works and how it impacts people’s lives at the local level. This week, …
“Foundations” is a monthly series examining the fundamentals of local government, talking about how government works and how it impacts people’s lives at the local level. This week, “Foundations” explores municipal water systems in New York.
It’s easy to take municipal water systems for granted. The web of pipes that bring water to the taps of a home often go unnoticed.
But the municipal systems that provide many people with their water are worth learning about. Those systems are both extensive and expensive.
A 2017 report from the New York State Comptroller’s Office lists the provision of water as an important role of local government. “New York state has long benefited from abundant and reliable water resources. Residents expect safe and affordable water for basic daily needs, and industrial, institutional and commercial users depend on the availability of water resources to produce their goods and deliver services.”
Not every local government in New York maintains a water supply. In the more rural areas of the state, residents may rely on their own private wells to furnish them with water. But the majority of local governments are involved in ensuring their residents have water—939 municipalities statewide had some kind of water system as of 2017, with 464 towns having water districts, 20 towns having town-wide systems, 20 towns combining town-wide systems and water districts, and 371 villages providing water.
Many of Sullivan County’s towns have some kind of municipal water and sewer system. The amount of coverage varies. The Youngsville Water District in the Town of Callicoon has 132 active service connections as of 2021, while the Town of Liberty contains four district sewer districts, with two wastewater and sewer plants and seven water districts, many of them interconnected.
Water districts that cover smaller geographic areas than a whole town have distinct benefits. They can centralize infrastructure in places where it is most beneficial. “[Water districts allow] towns to serve only population center that would benefit from a more centralized water system, while in undeveloped or less-developed areas, private well water may be a better solution,” writes the state comptrollers office.
Water districts also ensure that the costs of the municipal water infrastructure are borne only by those who benefit from it. Customers of the water district can be billed for the water they use, and the funds are kept separate from general town taxes.
The difficulty of water districts is the expense of maintaining that infrastructure.
“New York State is home to some of the oldest continuously settled communities in North America, and some of the water infrastructure is nearly as old,” writes the comptroller’s office. Aging infrastructure can lead to costly leaks and breakdowns, or may be made of lead, requiring replacement due to the risk of contamination.
A number of towns in Sullivan County are facing such repairs to their water facilities.
The Town of Tusten has a water tank that’s 70 years old, which together with the rest of the town’s aging infrastructure may cost up to $7.5 million to repair. Two of the Town of Thompson’s wastewater treatment plants are due for upgrades, at a combined estimated cost of up to $42.3 million. The Town of Delaware plans to relocate its wastewater treatment plant, moving it to higher ground to protect it from flooding.
The projects can largely be funded through grants (each of the above projects has received some amount of grant funding). But rate increases (like the one Tusten undertook in 2021) may also be necessary, the comptroller’s office warns:
“In recent decades, having developed infrastructure was financially advantageous because communities did not need to invest in new water systems. As a result, local leaders managed to keep water bills low and focus financial resources elsewhere… [however] water infrastructure replacement will be very expensive, and many local governments face potential costs that are many times their annual water budgets.”
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