EDITORIAL: What’s water really cost?

IT WASN’T HARD to find a plastic jug of clean water in the Village of Chatham village Monday evening. The shelves of a local convenience store were full of them, just like always. But this was 12 hours after the mayor declared a state of emergency encompassing the village and those parts of the Town of Ghent hooked up to Chatham’s extended water system.

Those residents who still had water running from the tap were ordered to conserve it. Under no circumstances should we drink it without boiling it first. Maybe some folks were home heating their tea kettles with one eye and checking their phones or TV for news of the water district. Otherwise you couldn’t tell there was an emergency.

Except for the 500 folks who live in mobile home park named Edgewood Acres and who had no water at all starting early Monday morning. It was near there that a worn-out pipe fell apart and drained the water storage tank that supplied their mobile homes and led village officials to fear that the whole system was at risk.

A truck with potable water delivered by the state at the request of local and county officials was soon stationed at Edgewood Acres. Think about TV news images of crowds lining up for water in other, poorer places around the planet. But in Columbia County?

No wonder there were so few outward signs that the area lacked the most basic municipal service. How were residents who still had running water supposed to conserve it?

Okay, turn off the water while you brush your teeth. Questions: If you aren’t supposed to drink water from the tap that hasn’t been boiled, can you safely brush your teeth with it, boiled or unboiled? How long should you let the water boil? What about bathing? Showers use less water than a tub, but what if, while showering, you breathe in whatever it is that might now live in the water that wasn’t there before? And what symptoms should we look for if we accidentally sip some unboiled water, following habits of a lifetime?

These are quibbles, but Tuesday morning some stores had no coffee. That would have been serious except that by then the state of emergency had been lifted, the pipe was fixed and only the boil-water order remained while water throughout the system was tested.

Chatham Mayor John Howe and the village Department of Public Works responded to this incident exactly as taxpayers would want: assessing the damage, taking steps to protect public health and safety, reaching out to the county and state for help, and initiating repairs. The mayor doesn’t think the cost to taxpayers will be too high because the DPW staff did most of the plumbing repairs.

That’s reassuring in the case of this small scale emergency. The response was timely and it worked. The responders deserve praise. The public should beware.

This is the kind of event that can lull us into thinking that our aging infrastructure is adequate, that with a patch here or there, the weakest and oldest parts of the water and sewer systems and roadways and bridges we depend on can carry us though a warming climate, inadequately funded maintenance and the surprises that lurk just beyond our imagination.

We can vow to behave better as individuals and compete for Most Virtuous Water Saver and Tiniest Carbon Footprint awards, but that won’t pay for the infrastructure we’ll need just to survive.

A couple of months ago Congressman Antonio Delgado (D-19th) introduced a bill called the Promoting Infrastructure and Protecting the Economy (PIPE) Act, which a release from his office described as “a new grant program to help communities in New York and across the country invest in critical water system upgrades.”

The bill called for $5 billion over 10 years for “discretionary grants to state and local governments, tribal governments, and public water utilities for projects related to drinking water and waste water infrastructure.” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced a similar measure in the Senate.

The bill doesn’t seem to have made any headway so far. Maybe the problem is that the funding is a tiny fraction of what’s needed to upgrade water and sewer systems, let alone roads, bridges and all the other tangible assets that support our way of life.

So instead of $5 billion why not propose $500 billion—just a little less than President Trump said he wanted to spend on infrastructure? Too expensive? So are broken water and sewer systems.

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