Officials warn of water infrastructure costs

MainBreakHoleTown of Niskayuna highway workers repair a broken water main near 1262 Fox Hollow Road in Niskayuna on Wednesday. The large pipe at the center of the picture is part of the storm drain system.

BY INDIANA NASH

Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA- We tend to want our water infrastructure to stay where it is: out of sight, out of mind.

But officials say residents should be much more aware of it.

“There’s a lot of brewing crisis around,” said Superintendent of Water Engineering, Richard Pollock.

The large-scale water line replacement projects along Pearse and Lishakill Roads that have been in the works for the past several months is evidence of the town’s concern and attempt to get ahead of the infrastructure issues.  

The problems are by no means new. They’re about as old as some of the water lines lying a few feet below ground — some about 100 years old.

What’s new about this story is the increased concern over water quality and with government funding.

Niskayuna has been calling on New York State for assistance to replace water infrastructure for a number of years now (as have other towns and cities across the state).

“The 2016-2017 New York State budget includes $100 million in grants for water infrastructure improvements,” reported a NYS press release from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office in August.

But according to the Department of Health, this funding may be a little too late.

In 2008, the NYS DOH released a report stating that towns and cities across the state needed to put in at least $38.7 billion to repair and replace the current water infrastructure by 2018 or else the structural deficiencies could lead to frequent and costly emergency repairs.

That’s a bit over a year away from now.

In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency published a report stating that $384.2 billion would need to be spent between 2011 and 2030 nationwide on drinking water infrastructure.

Niskayuna’s water lines are a mix of brand new and ‘seasoned’ –some coming in at 100 years old.

“But age is only one of the factors when you’re looking at the health of the lines,” Pollock said.

The material of the lines and the pressure also play a role.

When some of the first  lines were installed between 1914 and 1915, they were made of cast iron.

While cast iron is strong, it’s also brittle and doesn’t stretch whenever the water pressure increases, which can sometimes lead to cracks and breaks in the lines. Because water has slight corrosive properties, the metal can also become corroded after many years of use.

Thus, during the 1970s, Niskayuna (along with many towns across the state) turned to ductile iron material instead.

With this material, there is a cement liner applied, which stops the water from corroding the pipe.

However, in the past decade, the town has turned to high density plastic lining.

“For the project on Lishakill and Pearse, we wrapped the pipe in plastic,” Pollock said. The town is hoping that this will further help to protect the lines.

Over two miles of water lines are being replaced on Pearse and Lishakill Roads.

It cost around $1 million to replace one mile of water lines, according to Pollock’s estimates.

For the project, Niskayuna bonded around $3 million last year.

“We’re coming in a bit above $2 million for the project now, but we bonded for three just in case,” Pollock said.

Senator Hugh Farley, who is a resident of Niskayuna, has been advocating for further funding for municipalities from New York State for a number of years.

. . . I believe that additional assistance is needed and that the State needs to do more to make needed infrastructure improvements at both the State and local levels. In particular, we have been advocating for additional support for water and wastewater improvements.  In 2015, the Legislature was successful in adding $200 million to the State Budget (over a three-year period) for grants to municipalities for these types of projects,” Farley said.

These funds have gone to 102 communities so far.

However, Niskayuna is not one of them, according to the town comptroller.

The funding would help the town fund repairs and replacements of some of the ‘problem areas’.

The number of water line and water main breaks from 2004 to 2015 ranges between 32 and 76.

One of the most concentrated areas of the breaks is near Birchwood Elementary.

It’s mostly due to elevation changes, which can throw the water pressure off more frequently.

Pollock and his team are looking into fixing the issue by installing automatic valves and with another storage tank.

The town currently has two water storage tanks that are at the ground level and one water tower on Balltown Road.

Pollock and his team are also drawing up plans to try and repair or replace the lines on Troy Schenectady Road because the size of the pipes is too small for the needs of the area.

But all of these projects will take time and money.

“We apply for various water grants but we usually don’t make the cut,” Pollock said.

In order to have the funding necessary to replace the water lines in an optimal time frame, the town would have to add an additional million to its budget every year or bond for it each year.

But neither of these are optimal. With the tax cap, the town would not be able the additional cost to its budget anyway, according to Pollock.

According to Phil Steck, an assemblyman Phil Steck, offering only grant-based programs is problematic.

“I don’t support grant-based programs. Towns have to spend a lot of time and money to apply for them,” Steck said.

He is working to replace these with programs of general applicability.

“ . . . base the program on the length of the (water) lines, so that the program doesn’t disproportionately award municipalities,” Steck said.

Niskayuna is not alone in their struggle to get state or federal funding for infrastructure projects.

“All municipalities in New York State are struggling with this. Most of our infrastructure was developed with lots of government funding that doesn’t exist today. The federal money is just not there,” Steck said.