Buffalo is an old city, with old water infrastructure to match. Buffalo’s water system began in 1827, during John Quincy Adams’ first and only term as U.S. president. The city’s water system is as old as wooden matches, with most of the city’s service lines installed 70 to 80 years ago. Unsurprisingly, Buffalo’s old water and sewer pipes make them prone to failures, disruptions and breakdowns that threaten drinking water safety.
Buffalo’s case is not a unique one. New York State’s entire water infrastructure system is aging and crumbling. Luckily, our state government has instituted funding to help fix our pipes.
Since 2017, the governor and State Legislature have invested $4.5 billion in the Clean Water Infrastructure Act, which funds 13 unique clean water initiatives, from lead pipe replacement to toxic chemical cleanup. One of these programs, the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act (WIIA), is New York’s largest water infrastructure grant program.
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Last month, Environmental Advocates NY published a new report, Untapped Potential: A New Era for New York’s Water Infrastructure, which takes a close look at WIIA. Our report finds that the program has been successful at distributing over $2 billion in grants to drinking water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades, including over $80 million in Erie County. Buffalo’s new project to reduce sewage overflows into the Niagara River received critical funding through WIIA.
But at the same time, clean water in Western New York remains at risk because many proposed projects are going unfunded. Why is that? Because the need for updated water infrastructure is greater than what the state is willing to spend.
Last year alone, 246 shovel-ready projects submitted to WIIA were denied funding, including eight projects in Erie County, meaning they likely had to sit on the shelf for another year. The Village of Akron didn’t get the money they needed for a water main replacement. The Town of Grand Island didn’t receive help for drinking water filtration improvements. Each of these unfunded projects represents a missed opportunity to protect clean water.
With the state budget currently being negotiated, lawmakers in Albany have a chance to take bold action to ensure all New Yorkers, not just some, have clean water when they turn on their taps. Gov. Kathy Hochul has proposed $500 million in new funding for the Clean Water Infrastructure Act. The State Senate and Assembly have proposed a boost to $600 million, with $50 million dedicated to replacing dangerous lead pipes.
We’re grateful that the State Legislature supports increasing investments in clean water. Now we need Hochul to match it. Given the massive need across the state, the final budget must include at least $600 million to continue making progress to fix our pipes.
Investing in water infrastructure is a win-win for the environment and the economy, with the potential to create thousands of prevailing wage jobs to protect public health in Buffalo, Western New York and across the state. The governor should seize the opportunity.
Adriana Ortega is a clean water associate, Environmental Advocates NY.