Business, labor coalition joins green groups for water funding

Original story by Politico
By Marie J. French. March 21, 2017

ALBANY — Fresh off two successful campaigns to get more money for roads and bridges, a coalition of business and labor groups has allied with environmental advocates to push for somewhat less-sexy infrastructure — water mains and sewage systems.

Rebuild NY Now held its third annual rally in the state Capitol on Monday, with workers in yellow-and-orange construction vests mixing with allies carrying Riverkeeper signs. Lawmakers, environmentalists, business groups and municipal government leaders spoke in support of more funding for water infrastructure.

“We need the money to fix our sewers and protect our water and that will lead to jobs,” said Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Rebuild NY Now, led by Mike Elmendorf of Associated General Contractors of New York, advocated last year for parity in transportation funding between the MTA and upstate. The campaign spent about $1.4 million. In 2015, the group pushed for a big investment in roads and bridges. Both efforts were successful.

“This obviously is a little bit of a different element because it’s not just straight transportation infrastructure, it’s environmental infrastructure,” Elmendorf said. “This is an issue where everybody can agree because it matters to everyone. Whether you’re a business, whether you’re a family, a farmer, a manufacturer, you need reliable environmental infrastructure.”

Rebuild NY Now is again focusing on targeted digital advertising to promote its message, Elmendorf said. The group is also holding a series of events around the state, including one in Syracuse with Mayor Stephanie Miner later this week.

The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Advocates of New York, Audubon New York, Save the Sound, Riverkeeper and the New York League of Conservation Voters are among the groups pushing for more water infrastructure. Business and trade groups, including the Long Island Contractors Association and The Business Council of New York State, also support the effort.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers already are on board with at least $2 billion for the cause. But the details are vague thus far.

There’s disagreement over how exactly that money should be divided up among priorities like replacing lead pipes, protecting water sources, addressing water contamination and traditional water and sewer projects.

Senate Republicans are also pushing a $5 billion bond act that would require voter approval. Elmendorf said there is support for that measure as part of an “all of the above” approach.

Elmendorf said the focus right now is on getting more funding, rather than figuring out how it should be spent.

“The good news is if you get the funding, then you can have discussion about what to do with it,” he said. "Until then it’s a bit of an academic question.”

But wrangling over how exactly Cuomo’s proposed $2 billion should be spent began almost immediately as lawmakers raised concern about the lack of details.

Assembly Democrats laid out specific amounts in their one-house budget. The bulk, $1.15 billion, would be rolled into the already-existing Water Infrastructure Improvement Act that was passed in 2015. That program, administered by the Environmental Facilities Corporation, provides grants and financing for local water and sewer infrastructure repairs, maintenance and improvements.

The New York City-dominated conference also directed $200 million toward the city for large water projects, $138 million to replace lead pipes, $110 million to “intermunicipal” projects and $110 million for land acquisition to protect water sources.

Smaller amounts would be reserved for water contamination response, septic upgrades, water quality improvement, green infrastructure projects and emergency funding for municipal water system repairs.

The Senate also reined in Cuomo’s proposal, although its one-house budget doesn’t go so far as to set aside specific amounts for priorities. Instead, the Senate limited the possible uses.

The measure allows the $2 billion to be used for water quality projects, green infrastructure, conservation projects for large animal feeding operations, emergency investigation and remediation, lead pipe replacement and IT projects. That’s a shorter list than the one Cuomo proposed, which also included a study to consolidate water systems, regional projects and land acquisition for source water protection.

Including money for source water protection is a key priority for some environmental groups that see it as the most cost-effective way to maintain water quality.

“The first avenue of protection is protecting the source,” said Audubon New York’s Erin Crotty. “Source water protection is actually one of the best strategies to avoid putting that much on the end of pipes.”

The Nature Conservancy’s Jessica Ottney Mahar said there should also be a bigger investment than proposed by the Assembly to swap out septic systems. She said 10 percent of the final amount should committed to that purpose.

The Senate’s one-house also laid out how a proposed $5 billion bond act would be spent to support water and sewer infrastructure projects. That includes setting up a new Water Infrastructure Improvement Act with maximum awards of $10 million — municipalities had complained a lower limit impeded some urgent projects when they couldn’t get additional funds. The Senate also wants to create a rebate for the replacement of old septic systems that contribute to nitrogen pollution, among other uses for the money.

Although the budget language suggests the bond act would go to the ballot this November, Republican Sen. Kemp Hannon said earlier this month that his colleagues want it to go to voters in 2018, when there would be a higher voter turnout.

Assembly Democrats have not seemed eager to embrace the bond referendum. Assemblyman John McDonald, speaking at a press conference to urge more funding for intermunicipal water projects last week, said there’s concern about the state’s debt cap.

“Depending on the make-up of the bond, I’d be supportive of it because I do think the need has become more of a crisis on a daily basis,” said McDonald, a Democrat from Albany. “However, I don’t think there’s going to be a temperature for that in both houses.”