The tiny hamlet of Lawtons with a population of around 100 has struggled for years with its water which comes from a shallow, nearly century-old well.
The water was free, but for the last decade the roughly 40 households in Lawstons that relied on that well couldn't always safely drink the water that came out of their taps because of contaminants that seeped in.
"Our little hamlet, since 2008, they have not been able to drink the water," said North Collins Supervisor John Tobia. Lawtons is located in the Town of North Collins.
When tests would show that there were too many contaminants in the water, hamlet residents would be told they had to drink bottled water. "You can still shower in it," Tobia said. "But if you've got a kid on the second floor of a house and he's thirsty, he's going to put his mouth under the spigot."
Lawtons faced three options:
- Putting in a filtration system that would cost a $2 million upgrade.
- Connect to the Village of North Collins' water main, which would also cost millions.
- Connect to the Seneca Nation of Indians' water main system on the Cattaraugus Reservation.
"We border the Seneca Nation," Tobia said. Lawtons is located in the Town of North Collins. "They have good wells... They also have Erie County water [from the Erie County Water Authority]. It just happens to be next to our town. Why can't we just connect the pipe?"
On Monday, the Seneca Nation and the Town of North Collins, in which Lawtons is located, announced an agreement that would provide the hamlet with up to 20,000 gallons per day of potable water. The town engineer put the cost for the project at $695,000, about 60 percent of which is expected to be covered by a state grant.
Lawtons' shallow well is particularly vulnerable to contamination from ground water. Nitrates in the water are suspected to originate from a nearby farm field.
Nitrates in water have been linked to “blue baby syndrome,” a condition that can affect infants by decreasing oxygen supplies in their blood. The presence of nitrates is also a marker for other agricultural contaminants, including micro-organisms and pesticides, according to the Cornell Cooperative Extension.
A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council identified the hamlet as one of three spots in Erie County, along with the Wales and Gowanda, for health threats in tap water. The research relied on 2015 water sampling data in its report and concluded a disproportionate number of violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act are in rural America.
Two years ago when Tobia took office, he said he started looking into options for Lawtons. In May, the hamlets' residents voted to form a new water district.
Under the agreement announced Monday, the Lawtons Water District would construct a main that would connect to the Seneca Nation's existing water mains. The residents would pay taxes to their water district.
The district's users will pay an annual base rate established by the Nation, Seneca officials said, that won't exceed the existing rate set by the Erie County Water Authority for general metered purposes "or other such rates as may be applicable to the Nation’s water supply."
Town officials hope to begin construction on a new main that would connect to the Seneca line in early 2018. The Water District would "construct, provide and maintain any additional necessary water mains and service connections with its service area," a statement from the Seneca Nation said.
The Seneca Nation has similar agreements with a handful of towns in Western New York, including with the Town of Perrysburg to provide water to a water district in the Hamlet of Versailles.
“I want to thank the Nation for being great neighbors,” Tobia said.
“Water is life, and having access to safe drinking water should not be a concern for the people of our community. We have the ability to help our neighbors in Lawtons, and we are committed to doing that," said Seneca Nation President Todd Gates in his remarks at Monday's announcement.