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Editorial: New York sets an important example on water that Washington needs to take to heart

Democrats and Republicans differ on many issues, but one on which there is broad agreement is ensuring that water systems are adequate and functioning. It’s a fundamental responsibility of government and one that New York is meeting in bipartisan fashion. Washington needs to take a lesson.

Few places around the state need this project more than Western New York does. Erie County spills more raw sewage than any other part of the state, said State Sen. Christopher L. Jacobs, R-Buffalo, and it all winds up in Lake Erie. In addition, the city’s old water delivery pipes leak, discouraging investment and threatening disruptions of increasing frequency and severity.

Similar problems are common around the state, whose water and sewer infrastructure is woefully out of date. The need to invest seriously in its upgrade has been evident for decades. This year, as part of the state budget, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators agreed to commit $2.5 billion to a program that will modernize the system while helping to improve the quality of the state’s waterways, including its two Great Lakes.

This work is critical for all parts of the state, but none more than Western New York, where water is our primary natural resource, intrinsic to commerce and recreation and a primary driver of the region’s quality of life. Water is to Western New York as oil is to Oklahoma. It needs to be protected.

Replacing sewer lines isn’t what most people would call sexy work. Build a road or a new school or a sports stadium and people see the result. It’s easy – and common, for that matter – to take water and sewer lines for granted. What we see is clean water coming out of our taps and dirty water going down the drain.

And in some areas, not even that. A recent story in the New York Post reported that students in a Brooklyn elementary school classroom drank from a fountain whose water was more contaminated with lead than the water in Flint, Mich. The fountain spouted water containing 1,000 times the amount of lead permitted by federal safety regulations, the newspaper reported. How likely is it that a single fountain in one school in Brooklyn is the only place in New York with that kind of problem?

Water is life. It’s a necessity for existence, and clean water is critical to health. In Buffalo, whose water supply is Lake Erie, sanitation is an urgent matter. So is it for those who want to swim in Lake Erie, where sewer overflows frequently close the beaches.

That’s why this isn’t just a New York issue. In the United States, the quality of water in Lakes Erie and Ontario is also at the mercy of states upstream: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota. That makes this a federal issue, one that Washington has been attending to through the far-sighted and effective Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

That project is now threatened with all but elimination by the Trump administration. The president’s proposed budget would recklessly cut funding for the initiative by an astounding 97 percent – down to $10 million from the current level of $300 million. It is up to the federal delegations from all of those states to fight this federal myopia.

In the meantime, Cuomo and state legislators from both parties have done well by the people of New York with this program. As always, the details will matter: What projects will be funded in what parts of the state and at what cost? Who will oversee them to ensure there is none of the financial illegality that has been alleged in the RiverBend project in South Buffalo and elsewhere?
Those matters will need close attention, but for now, what is important is that the decision to act has finally been made.

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