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Rusty, leaky, localities deal with old water systems

By MICHAEL HILL
Associated Press Writer

March 23, 2003, 10:35 PM EST


ALBANY, N.Y. -- Leaky, rusty, busted or old, lines bringing drinking water to many New Yorkers have seen better days.

New York City relies on an aqueduct constructed when Woodrow Wilson was president. Across the state, Buffalo uses a 150-year-old cast iron distribution pipe. Communities in between suffer with water distribution systems that are cobbled, clogged or contaminated. Local officials, with little money to tackle these costly problems, are replacing pipes on a piecemeal basis or borrowing money for large-scale upgrades.

"The systems clearly are aging," said Sarah Meyland, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "There's no overall systematic replacement of the pieces. It's pretty much on an as needed basis."

There are 3,270 community water systems in the state, from New York City's vast network serving 9 million people to systems that serve a few dozen. Pipes were laid for many of these systems during the state's growth spurt a century ago. Many more date to just after World War II. A lot of the original lines and treatment plants remain in service today.

Tonawanda has a treatment plant about 100 years old and pipes averaging about half that age. The system springs two to three leaks a week during cold snaps, said city engineer Jason Zdrojewski. Tonawanda residents this year voted to transfer the system to the Erie County Water Authority, which will perform upgrades.

"Eventually, clamps will only take you so far," Zdrojewski said.

In Buffalo, public works commissioner Joseph Giambra estimates that almost a quarter of the water running through his city's pipes leaks out. He said it gets to a point where it's less expensive to let a small leak go than rip up a street. (There's still plenty of water though: Buffalo get its drinking water from Lake Erie).

New York state is far from unique. The federal Environmental Protection Agency last fall projected that capital and operating needs for drinking water systems nationwide could outpace funding by billions of dollars over then next two decades.

"It's always a money issue," said John Mokszycki, water superintendent for Greenport in rural Columbia County. Mokszycki fixes what he can when he can on a system that features lines laid during the Depression.

Strains on local water officials have been exacerbated further by increased security enacted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Water systems serving more than 3,300 people had to submit emergency response plans to the state this year.

Another issue is keeping water pure enough to meet tougher federal water standards designed to protect against microscopic parasites like cryptosporidium.

In Glens Falls, state health officials recently urged local residents with weak immune systems to boil their water before drinking after traces of giardia and cryptosporidium were detected. The city is building a filtration plant.

Nearby, the tiny village of Salem will start laying lines this spring for a new water system to serve fewer then 500 customers after the discovery of bacteria in local water brought pressure from the state health officials.

The pricetag: $4.9 million.

Salem is relying heavily on grants and low-interest loans. Like some 200 other municipalities in New York, the village was able to tap into a fund set up in 1996 under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The state-managed revolving fund has doled out $1 billion in low-interest loans and _ for the most financially hard-up towns _ grants to help finance improvements to mains, treatment plants and storage tanks.

The state is responsible for about a fifth of the funding.

Sarah Meyland said the money for communities to upgrade water distribution systems is out there, although sometimes the political will is not. Water systems are by their nature out of sight and underground _ and therefore off the radar screen when it come to competing for funds, she said.

"It's completely the lowest priority you can imagine," Meyland said. "Because the bridge is visible, the potholes in the street are visible, that's where the first priority is."


Copyright 2003, The Associated Press

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