Federal funding and state bond bills offer hope to communities in need of updated infrastructure
Less than 18 months after the town of St. Armand built a $5.2 million wastewater treatment plant in 2017, state officials directed town leaders to improve it.
The town is still looking for the money. Mayor Davina Winemiller said she would not ask residents to fund another long-term state loan, this time for disinfection and phosphorus removal. Even with zero interest rates, she said, her constituents couldn’t afford the debt. They are already stretched thin, with typical water and sewer bills running around $1,200 a year.
“You can’t take blood from a stone,” Winmiller said.
The town must also upgrade its sewer collection system in the small village of Bloomingdale, with the goal of connecting the handful of properties with faulty septic systems to municipal sewers. Winemiller said she wanted clean water and protection of the environment. But residents are still paying off debts from decades-old projects and new factory construction. For the roughly 300 people who depend on the town’s sewers and water system, the math doesn’t apply — too many costs are spread over too few people.
“They want towns to have a place in the game,” Winmiller said. “I get it, I get it, but you can’t have the same rules for a user base of 250 people as a city of 100,000 people. It’s absolutely unfair and it’s absolutely out of reach.”
Communities in the Adirondacks have struggled to maintain or replace aging infrastructure and raise money for it. Residents need clean water for drinking and for properly functioning sewer flushes. Just as pollutants in wastewater pose serious environmental risks, groundwater and surface water can also pose serious health risks if left untreated.
A proposed water connection for about six households is estimated at $2 million. Shared by a small number of users, many low-income and senior citizens, such plans have been put on hold due to unaffordability.
The National Clean Water Grant and Loan Application lists nearly $500 million in wastewater and drinking water needs across more than 80 Adirondack Park projects. Some projects are nearing completion, while others are cobbling together funding to begin construction, all supported by engineering studies. Other projects haven’t done this yet.
In its 2016 and 2020 reports, the Adirondack Commission put the infrastructure needs of the Adirondack community in the broader context of protecting the water that so many people use to swim, fish, paddle and enjoy. Adirondack leaders and advocates argue that many communities within the park are hampered by a small user base and emphasize the Adirondack’s special status as a state park for its ecological integrity, recreational value and critical role in conservation protected from the role of the watershed. They noted that tourists and residents alike benefit from clean water in places like Moose Pond, Cranberry Lake and Upper Hudson River.
“The Adirondacks are for everyone…we need to invest more there,” said David Miller, the council’s clean water expert and author of the infrastructure report. “Local communities don’t want to not invest in (clean water infrastructure), but they want to invest at a scale that is reasonable for their users and residents.”
Infrastructure includes a sewer system that collects and cleans wastewater and stormwater runoff before discharge into soil and water, and a drinking water system that treats and delivers water to park residents.
In addition, many draw water from private wells and distribute waste in septic systems, and advocates hope some funding will be available for upgrades. Natural restoration projects, such as those for flood mitigation and mitigation for the Ausable River, may also qualify for future infrastructure funding.
Funding for most projects comes from grants and low- or no-interest loans. Piecing together can be complicated for small communities with limited staff and resources. Small towns rely on county planners to help guide the financing process. Local communities borrow through the State Environmental Facilities Corporation, which administers state programs for water infrastructure, using direct state and federal funds and returns on previous loans.
Some water systems in the park date back a century or more and require constant maintenance. For example, Saranac Lake Village regularly surveys and replaces pipes and parts from the 1920s and 1930s.
“We’ve been planning, investigating and developing projects,” said Village Manager John Sweeney. “Things change and you try to capture the latest and greatest, which processes work and which don’t, even though by design they should work.”
As knowledge about contaminants and health risks continues to increase, so do expectations and demands on water systems. The Village of Lake George recently completed construction of a wastewater treatment plant, replacing a nearly 90-year-old facility that relied on “old technology,” said Lake George water administrator Chris Navitsky. It can’t stop nitrates from seeping into the lake.
There are reasons for hope. Billions of federal funds approved last year will be used for infrastructure, and a $4 billion state environmental bond bill will be passed for voter approval in November, including dollars for clean water.
Under federal law, the state will receive more than $420 million in water-related infrastructure funding this year, with more to flow over five years. Governor Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal includes $500 million in clean water projects and calls for at least $650 million in a state bond bill to improve water quality.
It’s unclear when or how federal funding will make its way into Adirondack towns and villages, or how well it will meet demand. But the impact could be far-reaching. The environmental utilities company has added 20 new employees to its budget to help focus funds to municipalities, while the EFC recently set aside $5 million to help the most financially stressed local governments start projects. Nearly half of federal aid must be in grants — not loans to be paid back — and advocates want Adirondack communities to qualify for funding in poor areas.
EFC executive vice president Michael Hale said in January that the company was seeking clarification on eligible projects, such as efforts to combat harmful algal blooms.
“We have a daunting task ahead of us,” Hale told his board.
“Consequences of inaction”
The town of Essex needs to rehabilitate a water treatment facility at Beggs Point that draws water from Lake Champlain.
The plant has struggled with pollutants for the past 45 years. New filters were installed in 1993 to deal with microbial pathogens, and in 2006 the state Department of Health issued the first of more than 20 violations of exceeding allowable contamination levels. Due to the high turbidity of the lake, officials issued several orders to boil the water, including one in 2011 that lasted for several months.
For years, Essex officials and state authorities have engaged in a dance of enforcement and encouragement, moving towards a solution. By 2008, the town was considering switching to a groundwater source. But after exploring more than 20 sites and drilling four test wells, the plan stalled. In 2016, Essex turned to improved lake water treatment methods.
“We’re going back to the source of Lake Champlain,” Essex County Supervisor Ken Hughes said. “It’s a huge headache and it’s very difficult because all I want is water that water users can afford – affordable, clean drinking water.”
The plan now is to build a plant on the site of the current processing facility. Construction of the temporary treatment plant was originally scheduled to begin in 2020, but was delayed due to the pandemic. Supply shortages and delays increased the expected cost to $4 million.
Stephen McNally, president of the Adirondack Villages and Towns Association and director of Minerva, said it has become increasingly difficult for communities to afford large infrastructure projects over the years as the cost of debt from previous projects has mounted. The usefulness of the upgrade probably won’t outweigh the debt.
“Usually before the 30 years expire, you’re borrowing more money to bring the system to DOH compliance,” he said. “It’s a vicious circle where these water projects don’t have direct grant funding and it’s hard to get anything done.”
McNally noted that in Minerva, many of the large nearby campsites and second homes are outside the water boundary and will not add to the cost of the project. Residents within the waters are generally low-income and retired, congregating in small villages in the area.
“A lot of these people can’t afford it the most,” he said.
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One of the park’s largest recent projects is the construction of a new wastewater treatment plant in the village of Corinth along the Hudson River, on land purchased on the former site of International Paper. Laberge Group engineer and project manager Don Rhodes, who led the effort, said project delays only added to the damage.
“You also need to consider the consequences of inaction,” Rhodes said. “The option of doing nothing seems like the easiest option…but…there’s always an expensive maintenance burden, and, eventually, you’re going to have to do the project.”
Many Adirondack communities need “particular attention,” he said, because of the tricky economics of large infrastructure projects and the high-value water assets that must be protected.
“Inaction means you need more support from taxpayers and the state,” Rhodes said. “So it’s important for the state to work with these communities in the Adirondacks.”
The Adirondack Park land use and development plan is designed to focus on the development of small villages. But many of these small villages do not have the necessary infrastructure to enable new development, hindering economic growth and efforts to build affordable housing.
“By promoting infrastructure maintenance, you’re going to see more commercial activity that helps lower (water) rates,” Rhodes said. “I think this type of investment will pay dividends for the park.”
For decades, North Creek residents and local officials have wanted to install a sewer network to replace their old septic system. Small businesses have abandoned expansion plans or haggled with state officials over septic tank capacity due to the lack of major sewer systems in historic small business districts.
To address the problem, residents could form a new sewer community as early as this winter. The town has received state funding for a sewer project, but still needs more funding.
Johansburg Township Supervisor Andrea Hogan, who is also on the Adirondack Park Service board, said she hopes federal funding will help realize the sewer district’s dream.
“Our Main Street is beautiful, a classic Adirondack Main Street,” Hogan said. “Hopefully in the sewer, economic development can follow.”