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Cuomo's water quality initiative relies on wetlands as well as pipes

Part of the $2 billion that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants for improving water quality across the state would be spent on projects beyond gray infrastructure – like replacing water and sewer lines and expanding wastewater plants – and instead pay for ways to prevent water pollution in the first place, proponents said.

The governor’s proposal includes:

• Constructing wetlands that capture runoff and filter contaminants before they make it into the sewage system.
• Putting into practice techniques that keep contaminants like manure, phosphorus and pesticides – as well as road salt – from running off the land into creeks and streams and leading to bigger problems like algal blooms, bacteria proliferation and other water quality problems.
• Bolstering the state’s Superfund to speed up emergency clean-up of contamination that could impact water supplies.

The spending Cuomo called for in his State of the State speech this week shocked environmental activists.

“This was an amazing proposal,” said Jessica Ottney Mahar, policy director for the Nature Conservancy. “The level of funding is exciting, and frankly, it surprised me.”

But one of the most important aspects of Cuomo’s request is his call for protecting water at its source, said Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.

“It’s just as important to protect where water is generated – where it comes from,” Jedlicka said.

No one knows which projects and municipalities would get funding through his proposed Clean Water Infrastructure Act of 2017, but proponents said the funds would go a long way toward cleaning up pollution and improving water infrastructure in the Buffalo Niagara region and elsewhere.

Any money designated for local water infrastructure projects would have a pay-off:

• More access to Lake Erie and Lake Ontario during beach season.
• A quicker revival for polluted Scajaquada Creek.
• Replacement of lead pipes in Buffalo, Dunkirk or Jamestown.
• Prevention of phosphorus runoff that lead to hazardous algal blooms on inland lakes and ponds.

“This proposal from the governor is a potential game-changer,” said Brian Smith, associate executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “We know the solutions. It doesn’t require magic. We just need the leadership and investments to fix our water quality problems.”

“We need to take immediate action,” Cuomo said during his speech.

“Investing in water infrastructure is critical to fostering growth in our communities and our state. This investment will rebuild and improve our regional infrastructure, while supporting a stronger, healthier New York for generations to come.”

Under Cuomo’s plan, communities would recommend ways to protect water sources. Conservation and green infrastructure projects would be pursued, along with improved land management policies.

“That’s the sort of visionary investment that our communities can make for generations to come,” Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy said. “Oftentimes, we fail to appreciate how important these wetlands are to protecting our drinking water.”

In addition to protecting water at its source, the governor’s plan calls for advancements and improvements at municipal drinking water and wastewater systems.

Those are the sorts of things that could help places like Buffalo, Cheektowaga and West Seneca upgrade their systems.

All three municipalities are under consent orders to fix aged and inadequate wastewater systems that often discharge raw, or partially treated, sewage into area creeks and streams during heavy rains or rapid snow melts.

That’s what plagues waters of the Scajaquada, Cazenovia, Buffalo and Rush creeks among others.

Besides the odor, the overflows cause bacteria levels to spike in the water, a threat to wildlife and swimmers, and also lead to the release of “floatable” debris like tampons and condoms into the waterways.

The contamination floats downstream, eventually ending up in the Buffalo or Niagara rivers, or Lake Erie.

Closed beaches, floatable debris and sewage flows make it harder to attract visitors to recreational spots at Woodlawn Beach, Canalside or the Erie Basin Marina.

“Our tendency is to deal with infrastructure we see, not infrastructure we don’t see,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo. “We’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up the Buffalo River but because of combined sewage overflows and the like, we’re repolluting those waterways.”

“Our local and regional economies are dependent on our water systems,” Jedlicka added.

Higgins called Cuomo’s proposal “forward-looking” and “pre-emptive” in its approach, and he hopes an even bigger $1 trillion to $2 trillion bipartisan federal bill for infrastructure projects will supplement work done in New York State.

“Nobody argues there’s a need,” Higgins said.

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