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To the LAST DROP
By Rick Marshall
Photographs by alicia solsman

Ready or not, water shortages---along with bitter debates over the wisdom of water-supply privatization---may be coming soon to a town near you

‘When I was growing up here, I knew that for three or four weeks in August we were going to be out of water,” says town of Halfmoon Supervisor Ken DeCerce.

Like others who remember relying on wells in a time before “city water” was the standard, DeCerce was introduced to the notion of water-supply management early in life. And it was this experience that came to mind years later, says DeCerce, when town officials determined that an alternative to the region’s dwindling aquifer must be found if Halfmoon was going to be able to meet the need of its residents.

“As far as water’s concerned, we were in dire straits,” says DeCerce.

For many residents of upstate New York and the surrounding regions, scarcity of drinking water—much like earthquakes and scorpion bites—is viewed primarily as a problem of the Southwest. Yet from Bethlehem to Clifton Park to the city of Saratoga Springs—and even east into Massachusetts—local governments have been forced in recent years to explore alternatives to the aging water systems that serve their cities, towns and counties, facing not only the question of where to find enough water to keep pace with development, but also of how to make delivery of that water affordable.

While we’re provided with almost daily
reminders that a shortage of crude oil is on the nation’s doorstep, recent studies have shown that the United States’ supply of fresh water is just as—if not more—endangered. According to Fortune magazine, water is “the oil of the 21st century,” and with an exponentially growing population and a supply of fresh water from rainfall and snow that remains fairly constant from year to year, scientists predict that it’s only a matter of time before the United States joins the ranks of countries with chronic water shortages.

“In many areas, we do not have enough water for forecasted long-term municipal and industrial use,” states a letter written by water experts from around the nation and sent to the president, governors and members of Congress in 2003. The letter presented a series of recommendations developed during the Water Resources Policy Dialogue, a meeting that occurred in fall 2002 between representatives of federal and state agencies, as well as local planning and conservation groups.

In addition to advocating that the country develop a “national water vision” to plan for the droughts that are occurring in the United States with more frequency each year, the letter also recommends better communication among federal, state and local agencies involved with water-supply management. With their limited resources, the letter argued, most local governments are unable to adequately plan for—and effectively deal with—the problems that arise from water shortages. According to the letter, this problem is only aggravated by state and federal agencies’ lack of awareness of such issues until local governments bring the matter to their attention.

“Small communities are particularly vulnerable [to water shortages],” explained Richard Engberg of the American Water Resources Association during a 2003 interview about the letter.

In New York, the existence of these same problems—with both the supply of drinking water and the lines of communication between state and local agencies—has become more apparent in recent years. Despite close proximity to Canada, one of the world’s most water-rich nations, a variety of factors have forced residents of both New York and Massachusetts to begin giving serious thought to the availability of fresh water and how it gets to their homes.

Finding and maintaining a reliable sources of fresh water “is becoming an issue everywhere,” says Don Austin Jr., administrator of the Clifton Park Water Authority. “It’s something people really take for granted. . . . And it’s a lot more complicated than most people think.”

Around Clifton Park, the predicted lifespan of the Colonie Aquifer—a glacier-created supply of groundwater tapped by both Clifton Park and Halfmoon—became quite a bit shorter in recent years, with the rate of development in each region proving too much for the aquifer and assorted wells around the Mohawk River to support. Neither the expansion of the town’s water-treatment plant nor the drilling of additional wells were determined to be an affordable solution for the town, says Austin.

“The problem with drilling wells is that you never know what you’re going to get,” he explains. “We’ve drilled wells and spent money in the past and the well doesn’t pan out to be a viable source. . . . Although we have enough water to serve the customers we have now, and for the next couple of years, we need to look for a long-term solution.”

Faced with this looming water crisis, Clifton Park officials imposed a moratorium on development in parts of the town in order to provide some time to consider their options. After shopping around nearby communities with water to sell, town officials now appear to favor joining a proposed countywide water system that would draw from the upper Hudson River.

What remains to be seen, however, is if Saratoga County can garner enough support for that county plan to cover the cost of its creation. In order to develop such a system, the participating municipalities would have to commit to buying a total of at least 5 million gallons of water each day. While the towns of Clifton Park, Ballston, Saratoga (not the city of Saratoga Springs) and Wilton have committed to buying a total of 2.5 million gallons per day, commitments from other cities and towns have been less certain, throwing the plan’s future into limbo. County officials have insisted that a commitment for 6 million gallons per day by 2008 for a chip-fabrication plant in the planned Luther Forest Technology Campus in Malta is around the corner, despite the site’s current lack of tenants.

In Halfmoon, the solution to the town’s empty-aquifer dilemma took a much different form. Where the town had previously bought nearly half of its water from the town of Waterford in order to make up for the diminishing aquifer, Halfmoon may soon be able to reverse its role in the local supply-and-demand water cycle, as the town completed construction of a new $10.3 million water plant in 2003, capable of supplying 3 million gallons of water per day from the Hudson River.

According to DeCerce, the town is looking into what role its new water plant might play in a countywide water system, but with all of the uncertainty and lack of commitment that surrounds the county plan, Halfmoon officials simply couldn’t afford to wait.

“Had they been five or 10 years quicker [with the county plan], Halfmoon would have been involved,” says DeCerce, who anticipates that the new plant—and a $13.6 million expansion of the plant that is already underway—will likely provide enough water for several generations of Halfmoon residents.

Just a few miles north of Clif-
ton Park and Halfmoon, water issues have taken center stage for another community, as the city of Saratoga Springs is also in dire need of a new supply of fresh water.

“It was fine when we had a population of 16,000 to 18,000, but now we’re up around 26,000,” explains Thomas McTygue, the city’s commissioner of public works. “Our lake is dying with all of the development.”

After nearly a century of drawing water from Loughberry Lake, Saratoga Springs officials recently determined that the city has “outgrown” its longtime water supply. The city’s planning board estimated that the lake could support only about four more years of development, and insisted that officials decide upon an alternative as soon as possible. While two dramatically different solutions are currently under consideration, each option carries with it a fair share of controversy, and support has largely fallen—and stalled—along party lines.

In one scenario, Saratoga Springs would begin drawing water from Saratoga Lake, one of the northeastern United States’ largest sources of surface water. Saratoga Lake contains nearly 38 billion gallons of water and sends more than 260 million gallons of that water—almost the same amount of water contained in Loughberry Lake—downstream to the Hudson River each day. The Saratoga Lake plan has found support among city Democrats.

The city’s Republican majority, on the other hand, as well as State Sen. Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) and U.S. Rep. John Sweeney (R-Clifton Park) are pushing for the city to join the county plan. Bruno and Sweeney have tried to sweeten the deal by pledging $20 million in state and federal money for the $72 million project.

Supporters of the Saratoga Lake plan claim that the lake not only will provide a cheaper source of water but also will keep decisions about the city’s water supply in city hands rather than in those of an outside agency. Critics contend that use of the lake as a water source will affect its recreational potential and aesthetic value, even though the plan specifically preserves recreational use. Both sides contend that the other side’s option is too contaminated for consideration as a source of drinking water. The fight has been contentious, with back-and-forth accusations frequently rising to fever pitch. Another public hearing has been scheduled, but no decision is in sight, which is keeping the city’s planning board up at night as the water reserves run down.

Although the quality of water drawn from the Hudson River is often a contentious matter in itself, the potential effect of so many municipalities taking water from the river is an even greater uncertainty. The towns of Bethlehem and Halfmoon, along with the cities of Poughkeepsie and Albany, are all looking to increase the amount of water they pull from the river in the years to come, and the addition of a county-sized intake to the mix is becoming more likely as time goes by. But monitoring agencies remain uncertain of what—if any—effect this dramatically increased drawdown might have.

“Towns have been [drawing from the Hudson] for years,” says local NYS Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Les Rosales, adding that current conditions “don’t really affect the river as a whole.”

“But if 10 towns sprung up and wanted to use the river—maybe we might see something then,” adds Rosales. Though the dramatic problems of the Colorado River, from which so much irrigation water is drawn that it no longer reaches the sea, seem unlikely to afflict the Hudson, a reduced flow could conceivably affect things like the river’s ports.

This sort of uncertainty is what the national water experts hoped to draw attention to with their letter to federal and state officials. While various agencies exist around the country to monitor the quality of fresh water in various states, the quantity of this water is subject to less-defined oversight. In New York, the Department of Health is responsible for dealing with issues involving polluted water systems, but neither the DOH, EPA nor the Department of Environmental Conservation claimed to play any role in monitoring the amount of fresh water available to New York’s municipalities, despite the recent spate of cities and towns exhausting their longstanding water supplies.

“We get involved, but not to the extent that the DEC gets involved,” said one DOH representative when asked which state agency monitors the consumption of New York’s fresh water resources. Calls to the DEC regarding the supply of fresh water were directed back to the DOH or the EPA, which both insisted that tracking fresh water availability in the state wasn’t one of their responsibilities.

New York is not alone in its
water woes. Just over the border in Massachusetts, the arrival of a global trend in water management has ignited intense controversy in the towns of Lee and Holyoke.

Globally, the notion of privatizing a municipality’s water supply is quickly becoming one of the most hotly contested issues in discussions of water management. The privatization movement, though it faces wide opposition, has taken a variety of forms across the world, with regions contracting out some portion—and sometimes all—of their local water system’s management and/or ownership responsibilities to a private company. Currently, more than 40 percent of the water services in Western Europe are privatized, with the United States taking a bit more cautious approach, allowing private involvement in only 20 percent of its water systems so far, though that does include more than 150,000 acres of water rights in the nation’s massive Ogallala aquifer.

Contributing to the anti-privatization sentiment are the much-publicized efforts of organizations like the Bechtel Corporation, whose management of a Bolivian city’s water system in recent years went so far as to charge residents money for buckets of rainwater they collected in their own homes. That privatization attempt eventually ended in a violent uprising.

Here in the United States, a 20-year, $428 million privatization contract between the city of Atlanta, Ga., and United Water, a subsidiary of the French corporation Suez, was terminated in 2003 after city officials determined that Suez overstated the city’s potential savings, attempted to bill the city for more than $100 million over the contracted rates and essentially neglected the city’s water system. Similar problems have plagued privatization efforts in Louisiana, California, Michigan and Wisconsin cities in recent years.

Yet despite the concerns raised by opponents of water privatization, advocates—including some conservation organizations—insist that privatization can be a valuable tool in water supply management if properly regulated. Supporters argue that large companies, with their vast resources, may be able to provide small towns and cities with better technology and more efficient water systems than they might otherwise be able to afford. And such sentiment is gaining ground at the national level, as legislation recently introduced to the U.S. Senate would require any municipalities hoping to receive federal funding for water infrastructure projects to consider privatizing their systems.

“Privatization or public-private partnerships can play a role in bringing water services to those without or improving service in areas that need capital investment,” states a report by the Pacific Institute, a think tank that supports conservation and sustainable development. “But we must ensure that any agreements don’t undercut the public interest, harm the environment or lock municipalities into unfair and unsafe deals.”

It was a similar list of concerns that Lee town officials—including those who voted in favor of the privatization plan—cited as reason for the recent 41 to 10 vote against allowing Veolia Water North America to manage Lee’s water supply in Massachusetts. After state and federal mandates forced the town to look into upgrading its sewer system, local officials decided to open up the bidding process on their sewer and water systems to private companies. Much to the surprise of town officials, Veolia was the only company to bid on the project. An intense debate ensued, with town officials going back and forth with Veolia representatives for more than four years over the roles the town and the private company would play in managing the region’s water.

“[The northeast United States] is a market waiting to happen,” says Lee resident and town Rep. Deidre Consolati, who not only helped organize opposition to the Veolia proposal, but is playing a similar role 30 miles to the east in the city of Holyoke, where Aquarion Water Company is being considered to manage the water supply.

“Companies like [Veolia] are beholden only to their stockholders and noted for their shady practices,” says Consolati.

While Veolia, which was once known as Vivendi and remains one of the biggest names in the privatization movement, has had its share of questionable forays into the privatization—the company was ousted from Puerto Rico and accumulated a history of problems while managing the sewer system in New Orleans—supporters of the plan say that its detractors failed to see past the bad publicity to the actual arrangement of the plan. According to the plan’s advocates, many of the privatization movement’s well-known fiascos occurred when private companies owned a significant portion of the region’s water rights. The arrangement between Veolia and Lee, however, would have given the town final say on any changes in the water rates, and given the company no claim whatsoever to the town’s water supply.

“If your father was a murderer, does that make you a murderer, too?” asks Lee Selectman Frank Consolati (Deidre’s cousin), who cast one of the few votes in favor of the plan. “All we were doing was hiring a manager. . . .We had the option [from] the day that [the facility] went online, we could pay them a sum of money and fire them, then run it ourselves.”

All these stories of privati-
zation, self-sufficiency and countywide approaches make it clear that water supply issues are hitting closer to home these days in the Northeast. And with scientists at the World Bank predicting that more than two-thirds of the world’s population will run short of fresh water by 2025, they’re not likely to go away.

“We’re probably going to see more and more problems [with water supplies around the region] as time goes on,” says DeCerce. “The problems that happen in other places are bound to reach us at some point—we just have to do our best to not let them take us by surprise.”

rmarshall@metroland.net


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