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Source: The Syracuse Post-Standard

Syracuse pushes plan for federal trust fund to update aging water and sewer systems


Posted: September 22, 2009
Originally Published: September 21, 2009

City averages 350 water main breaks per year. Replacing infrastructure without aid would drive tax bills through the roof.

Syracuse, NY -- Faced with a staggering cost of $2.6 billion to replace Syracuse’s crumbling water and sewer pipes, Mayor Matt Driscoll is looking to the federal government for help with the city’s biggest infrastructure needs in more than a century.

Driscoll is among those calling for Congress to establish a $10 billion per year national Clean Water Trust Fund that would help America’s aging cities address what some view as a looming national crisis.

The trust fund, to be paid for by taxes on industrial water users and those who contribute to water quality problems, would make grants and loans to municipalities in need of federal aid.

If Syracuse had to replace its pipelines without aid, homeowners who now pay $5,000 per year in property taxes would see their bills jump to $17,000 per year for the next 30 years, the mayor said.

“Clearly, we don’t have the tax base to support that,” Driscoll said. “We need help. America’s cities need help because all of America’s cities have very old infrastructure.”

Indeed, Syracuse could be the poster city for crumbling water and sewer infrastructure, relying on a failing system of pipelines and valves built more than a century ago.

In June 1894, Syracuse Mayor Jacob Amos turned a wheel opening an engineering marvel: A gravity-fed system of pipelines sending crystal-clear Skaneateles Lake water flowing to a thriving city that, until then, had been forced to drink gritty water from Onondaga Creek.

Now 115 years later, about half of the 500 miles of water pipelines buried under Syracuse’s streets are the original cast-iron pipes, installed mostly by men using their hands, Driscoll said.

Each day in Syracuse, 2.4 million gallons leak out of those older pipes, costing at least $3,240 per day in lost revenue, according to city officials. The city averages 350 water main breaks per year.

And Syracuse is far from unique.

Across the United States last year, communities reported 240,000 water main breaks. The breaks resulted in the loss of 6 billion gallons of drinking water per day — enough to fill 9,091 Olympic-sized swimming pools every day of the year, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

To help cities do more than simply plug the leaks and react to water main breaks, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., proposed the “Water Protection and Reinvestment Act.”

The bill would establish a trust fund for repairing America’s water and sewage systems, similar to other federal trust funds that help maintain the nation’s highways, harbors and airports.

The bipartisan bill has 14 original co-sponsors, including Upstate New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-Saugerties. Rep. Dan Maffei, D-DeWitt, has not signed on as a co-sponsor and is undecided on whether he will support the legislation because he’s concerned about how it will financed.

Blumenauer told a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee in July that it would be unfair to make ratepayers shoulder the entire burden of upgrading the nation’s water and sewage infrastructure.

“This could mean a doubling or tripling of rates, which in many communities have already increased at double the rate of inflation in past years,” he said. “To me it is unconscionable that in this country, something as essential to life as water could become unaffordable.”

A coalition of 10 national environmental groups and trade organizations have already endorsed Blumenauer’s bill, which Congress is scheduled to debate this fall.

Dereth Glance, of Syracuse, was among eight national experts called to testify in support of the bill at a July subcommittee hearing in the House of Representatives.

Glance, executive program director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, testified that Syracuse will need at least $1 billion simply to replace its water pipes. Sewage pipeline replacement would bring the cost to about $2.6 billion.

In her testimony, Glance told the subcommittee about Syracuse’s last large water pipeline break.

“On Mother’s Day in Syracuse, a water main burst, flooding downtown streets, churches, daycare (centers) and businesses with over 1 million gallons of water,” she said.

Glance also noted that the work would provide a needed boost for the economy.

In the Great Lakes region, an investment of $26 billion would bring at least $80 billion in regional economic benefits, she said, referring to a report from the Brookings Institution. “We have dedicated funds for highways and airports, but we also need clean, safe water for our cities,” Glance said in an interview after her testimony.

“I think it will send a really strong message, and it’s good for jobs,” Glance said of Blumenauer’s bill. “You can’t do this kind of work from outside of the country.”

Blumenauer proposes raising money for the Clean Water Trust Fund through a series of taxes on a broad base of companies who use water or contribute to water pollution. Beer-makers such as the Anheuser Busch brewery in Baldwinsville would be exempt.

The money would come from:

A 4 cent-per-container excise tax on water-based beverages where drinking water is the largest part of the beverage.
A 3 percent excise tax on items routinely disposed of in sewage. These items include toothpaste, cosmetics, toilet paper and cooking oil.
A 0.5 percent tax on pharmaceutical products. Pharmaceutical residues are increasingly found in U.S. water bodies.
A 0.15 percent tax on corporate profits of more than $4 million per year.
In all cases, the taxes would be collected at the manufacturer level, not from consumers, Blumenauer said.

Mayor Driscoll said he likes the idea, especially because cities such as Syracuse have no alternative at a time when local and state governments are dealing with financial strains caused by the poor economy.

“Clearly, the federal government needs to find a better way to support local governments with this problem,” Driscoll said. “At the end of the day, the feds are going to have to help out because cities across America can’t go it alone.”