New York’s aging infrastructure a costly problem

Tens of thousands of miles of aging sewer and water treatment systems need extensive repairs and upgrades that could cost New York billions in the next two decades, an expensive undertaking even with the help of federal stimulus funding, according to state officials.

New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation found sewage-treatment infrastructure around the state is aging out and in need of an estimated $36.2 billion in repairs over the next 20 years. A similar state Health Department study estimated that drinking water infrastructure is in need of approximately $38 billion in repairs over 20 years.

"There’s really not a corner of this state that doesn’t have an area that requires something to be fixed, but as soon as we fix one community, their neighbors will need something to be fixed," said Matthew Millea, acting president of the New York state Environmental Facilities Corporation, which awards loans and grants for wastewater and drinking water projects.

In the case of wastewater and sewage, much of the infrastructure is hidden underground, and the problems might not be apparent and are less likely to receive local funding. The problem with aging sewer infrastructure will affect one community at a time, gaining attention when serious overflows happen.

"They were constructed 30 to 40 years ago when the population was much less, now the population has grown but the upgrades of the facilities hasn’t grown to keep up," said Adrienne Esposito of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Federal support for water infrastructure had dropped about 70 percent over the last two decades, delaying critical maintenance and contributing to Clean Water Act violations, Esposito said. Hundreds of sewage and wastewater treatment facilities deteriorated.

The basic federal contribution for wastewater in 2009 was $74 million ? the lowest level since the inception of the program, according to the state Environmental Facilities Corporation. That got a $435 million boost in federal stimulus funds.

That was part of a combined $520 million the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allotted in 2009 for New York’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which is for sewage infrastructure. The revolving loan funds provide low-cost loans and grants to communities throughout the state for the construction, replacement and improvement of water infrastructure.

The state Environmental Facilities Corporation is in charge of picking the projects to get funding, and, so far, $366 million of the federal ARRA funds has been allotted for sewage infrastructure and $64 million for drinking water. The remaining $90 million has been assigned projects, but paper work needs to be finished.

Total spending in 2009 on wastewater infrastructure in New York was $1 billion, $400 million of which was grants. That will be down to $700 million in 2010, with $117 million in grants.

The state has more than 600 applications for wastewater projects around the state for 2010, but depending on the size and cost of those selected, officials anticipate funding between 70 and 80 projects.

The important thing is that more people are paying attention to the problem of the aging infrastructure, Esposito said.

"A lot of the times it’s out of sight, out of mind," she said. "It’s only when a pipe breaks or there’s a sewage overflow that people think it’s a crisis."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.