Environmentalists urged the New York Assembly at a hearing Friday to approve $5 billion bonding for upgrades and repairs to water and sewage systems, flood control projects and curbing air pollution.
Bills recently introduced in the state Senate and Assembly would authorize that borrowing, subject to voter approval in November 2014. A 2008 state report showed $70 billion would be needed over 20 years for municipal sewage treatment and drinking water projects statewide.
“Demand continues to outpace annual state appropriations for environmental spending,” said Sean Mahar, director of government relations for Audubon New York. “Many of these treatment systems are now exceeding their designed life, discharging billions of gallons of raw, untreated sewage into New York’s waterways.”
Overflows of combined storm water and human waste from municipal sewer plants occur often after heavy rains into big rivers like the Hudson, Mohawk and Niagara, as well as smaller tributaries and other waterways.
At Friday’s hearing, the Nature Conservancy said the state’s last environmental bond act, passed in 1996 for $1.75 billion, has been spent or committed. While the state also created the Environmental Protection Fund 20 years ago to supplement regular conservation spending, it was reduced in the economic recession, and there’s a backlog of projects though spending has increased to $153 million this year.
Anne Reynolds, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said after the hearing they have not yet evaluated the bond proposal, which has few details at this point. Another state study on infrastructure needs, based on 2012, is expected soon and unlikely to be lower than the last one. The DEC’s assessment of needed sewage system repairs, upgrades and new compliance measures in 2008 was $36 billion, she said.
Noting the state already has $135 billion in debt, the fiscally conservative Empire Center for Public Policy has criticized the bond proposal as unspecific and excessive. “It’s gigantic and it’s more than is called for on the face of it,” said analyst E.J. McMahon. He said it consists of three big pots of money and much of the long-term cost estimate is concentrated in New York City.
The legislation was proposed by Sen. Mark Grisanti and Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, who chair the Legislature’s two environmental conservation committees.
It calls for spending up to $2 billion to protect waster sheds, including drinking water supplies and flood control projects; $2 billion for wastewater and drinking water system repairs and updates; and $1 billion for improving air quality and environmental health including pollution prevention, greenways and community gardens.
The state Environmental Facilities Corp., which has a revolving fund, says it has provided more than $15 billion in low-cost financing and grants for over 2,000 water and sewer infrastructure projects statewide since 1990. Last month, it invited bids by nonprofits, conservation districts and municipalities on $45 million in grants for projects that improve water quality, reduce polluted runoff, and restore habitat in New York waterways.