By Mark Koester

There is a shortage of funds for keeping our rivers, streams and lakes clean, but it is completely different from that singled out in the recent Environmental Advocates report suggesting that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is failing to keep “polluters” in check. This misplaced effort fights yesterday’s battles and fails to fully address the real challenges of today. A productive dialogue would focus on finding new sources of money to repair pipes and treatment plants, and most fundamentally on creating a consensus about prioritizing infrastructure investments.

Water utility executives take great pride in protecting our state’s environment and, as DEC’s partners, serving New Yorkers. We are not polluters; we are, in fact, hands-on environmental professionals who take responsibility for successfully implementing the letter and intent of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

Many of our treatment systems built in the early days of this struggle are reaching the end of their useful life and require costly replacement or repair. Moreover, advances in technologies that improve our wastewater treatment processes and reduce our energy and staffing demands require increased capital to deploy and maintain. Our industry no longer views wastewater as pollution but as a potential resource to be recovered, by implementing new technology to accomplish these goals. On a case by case basis, we need to determine the best way to allocate funding from our ratepayers, since there are virtually no grants or loans from the federal government or the state, as was the case from the 1960s to the 1980s.

What we need is to change the dialogue in our state from one that suggests DEC is somehow failing to police polluters to one that celebrates our collective successes in achieving vast water quality improvements to date and champions a new way forward.

Finally, we must continue to work together to ensure we are using up-to-date, peer-reviewed scientific evidence before we impose further permit limits and requirements on our already overburdened systems and staff. Today’s fiscal realities do not lend themselves to investing billions more dollars in potentially unnecessary infrastructure upgrades for poorly defined benefits.

We welcome this dialogue and we look forward to continuing to strengthen our partnership with New York State. We can no longer look to federal earmarks, robust construction grant programs or even large pools of state funding to finance local water quality projects. Given this reality, we must also be able to meet our Clean Water Act requirements using new and innovative approaches to watershed management, on realistic time frames, with adequate rate support from those we serve.

Mark Koester is president of New York Water Environment Association and is writing on behalf of utility executives from Buffalo.