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Tonko Pushes For Water Infrastructure Bill

Lucas Willard
Rep. Tonko is flanked by community leaders at Yankee Distillers in Clifton Park

New York Congressman Paul Tonko has introduced a bill that would boost funding for clean water projects. The Democrat joined a coalition of bipartisan leaders from across the Capital Region whose communities are grappling with failing infrastructure.

Gathered inside Yankee Distillers in Clifton Park Thursday, Tonko, the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, said America's water infrastructure is in terrible shape.

"I've called it the hidden infrastructure. Out of sight, but definitely not out of mind," said Tonko.

Joined by community leaders from across his district, Tonko detailed the AQUA Act. Tonko said Congress has not reauthorized the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund in 20 years. The federal match for water projects stands at around 4 percent.

"Just 10 years ago, 15 years ago, it was at about 7 percent. Since the 70s it's dropped precipitously. So we have not kept up with our commitment."

Tonko points out that in this year's federal budget, the Drinking Water SRF was funded at $863 million. That number is five percent lower than last year and not enough even to replace the lead-tainted water system in Flint, Michigan. The AQUA Act would boost that number to $3.1 billion, and increase that number by 15 percent annually for five years. But the act’s fate in the GOP-led House is unclear.

In addition to helping communities recover from a water disaster, the AQUA Act would help upgrade drinking water systems, explore the feasibility of new drinking water standards, prioritize projects, and consider the potential impacts of climate change on such systems.

In the Capital Region, you don’t have to look far to see how aging infrastructure can impact the lives of thousands.

Days into his first term as mayor of Troy, Patrick Madden was surprised with a major water-main break.

"Each year we can anticipate roughly 50 breaks. Most are small and they affect only a handful of properties, and in most cases, the residents and customers don't even know it happened. But this year, the big one hit," said Madden.

The century-old 21-inch main spilled 10 million gallons of treated water into the streets of Lansingburgh. The City of Troy and several surrounding communities were impacted by the break because they are Troy water system customers.

Schools and businesses within several miles were closed. It took six days to fix the break. A few weeks later, business along Campbell Ave had to close when a sinkhole opened up. The road was reopened Thursday morning after repairs.

Halfmoon was one of the communities affected by the Troy break. Paul Hotaling is Deputy Town Supervisor...

"The one thing people take for granted, probably the most in life, is going home and turning on that water faucet. And we need this bill to happen," said Hotaling.

According to the Congressman, 86 percent of U.S. households rely on public water supplies. Leaking pipes lose an estimated 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water every day. Tonko likes to point out that some pipes in Albany are 135 years old, installed when Rutherford B. Hayes was in the White House.

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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