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Rep. Tonko, Syracuse Mayor Push For Water Infrastructure Funding

tap water
William Warby, flickr

A Central New York Mayor and a Capital Region Congressman are advocating for a new federally funded tool to ensure communities across New York and the U.S. have access to clean drinking water.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner said she was proud of her city’s water system. The city of more than 140,000 draws water from Skaneateles Lake.

“But with any benefit there is a burden, and the burden has been that there just has not been enough investment in this infrastructure to keep it in a good state of repair.”

Miner said 2015 brought 372 water main breaks in the City of Syracuse. In the first week of 2016, there have been at least 10.

Much of the Salt City’s water infrastructure is over 100 years old. 20th District Representative Paul Tonko said in some parts of the City of Albany, pipes are as much as 140 years old, built when Rutherford B. Hayes was president.

“If that doesn’t shock our senses, I don’t know what would,” said Tonko.

Many will recall the problems brought on by last winter’s so-called “polar vortex” that brought extreme cold and froze water pipes across the state.

Tonko cited the U.S. EPA’s 2011 report to Congress that found America’s infrastructure need at $320 billion over the next 20 years.

“That’s a huge number, but again, the cost of inaction, the cost of doing nothing, will far outweigh the cost of playing catch-up here with our water infrastructure financing.”

Tonko is calling for a reauthorization of a state Revolving Loan Fund to support water infrastructure projects.

While federal Stimulus funding includes a bump, Tonko said that came after a flat decade of support for infrastructure. He also said the lack of focus on water infrastructure from the Federal Government is threatening the knowledgeable workforce for local water systems.

“We need sound people, certified people, professionals that are running these systems. And I think the lack of attention to our water infrastructure, our drinking water infrastructure, has led to less of a career focus for those who are choosing career paths early in their work life.”

Tonko, an engineer by trade, co-authored the recently signed Grassroots Rural and Small Community Water Systems Assistance Act. The law reauthorizes the Safe Drinking Water Act Technical Assistance Program to support drinking water systems in small and rural communities.  

Miner has done her share of advocating as well. The city recently received a major grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to create an Office of Innovation, tasked with solving infrastructure issues.

As one of his first announcements in the new year, Governor Andrew Cuomo said in his legislative budget proposal he would increase spending for water infrastructure projects by $100 million.

Miner said she appreciates the effort, but that in many instances, it’s difficult for cash-strapped communities to enter certain state loan programs. She said Syracuse is often considered too-big to be eligible for certain funding awards, pushing the need for more federal investment.

Miner added she believes in the science behind climate change and says New York and other states will not be able to handle the challenges of the future, including stronger storm events, without significant investment.

“I believe wholeheartedly that water is going to be the commodity of the 21st Century. Just like oil was the commodity of the last century, water is going to be our commodity. And we have a chance here to really take an asset that is inherent to New York State and use it as an opportunity for business and economic development.”

Tonko and Miner both pointed to the federal investigation into the contaminated water supply in Flint, Michigan as a warning of what’s to come if government leaders fail to act.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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