Water District Conversation Continues With Contention

Photo courtesy of Townofnewpaltz.org.

Differing opinions in the New Paltz community continue to revolve around the fast approaching 2017 Catskill Aqueduct Shutdown, as town officials begin Phase III of planning for Water District No. 5: discussing the proposed next steps of implementation and finalizing the design.

The proposed water district on Plains Road in the Town of New Paltz, designed by Town Engineer David Clouser and Chazen Co., would allow the surrounding community to obtain water from the aquifer beneath it. This would be in effect for the duration of the aqueduct shutdown, which will commence in Oct. 2017 and last a maximum of 10 weeks. This will then reoccur for two more 10 week periods in 2018 and 2019.

“The greatest benefit of public water is not having to worry about your water supply: your well, your well water quality, what happens during droughts or what happens when the power goes out,” according to the Town of New Paltz Q&A document concerning the benefits of the water district. “Depending on the way your homeowner’s insurance rates fire risk factors, your homeowner’s insurance cost could be reduced, since fire hydrants are planned to be installed throughout the proposed Water District.”

According to Village Trustee Don Kerr, the aquifer underneath Plains Road is a finite resource. Kerr said those who are against the water district’s formation fear that the major stress put on the aquifer to provide all of New Paltz with water will cause it long-term damage.

The Plains Road Water Watch, which includes Plains Road residents Gail Freedman, Ingrid Beer, Donna Liebman, Ted and Carol Cryer, Chris Harp and many others, share Kerr’s fear of the potential environmental impacts. Additionally, these residents feel there has been a lack of transparency on the part of both village and town officials since the initial water testing of Plains Road in May 2014

“We were not informed about the initial testing on our own road,” Freedman said. “We only found out because Mike and Christa Burke, who live across from the test site, were affected by this, their well water levels went way below the pump and it burnt out.”

Freedman said it was from there she and other residents began questioning what was going on when Burke asked other residents if they knew why his well might be drying up.

According to Village Trustee Tom Rocco, during Phase I of this project, Plains Road was just one of the 120 evaluated possible water-boring processes.

Rocco said only those who owned property where the tests were being performed were informed of this initial testing in May 2014. Therefore, not all Plains Road residents were told.

“It was a part of standard operations to only tell those who owned the property,” Rocco said. “We went through all options we could identify. We didn’t know which were promising, which is why we have those initial tests.”

Rocco said since Plains Road simply turned out to be the freshest source of potable water in sufficient quantities, the town chose to investigate further.

As a part of the New Paltz Phase II Backup Water Supply Investigation, a 72-hour pumping test was implemented in July 2014 and yielded 400 gallons per minute (gpm), followed by 25 hours at 275 gpm, according to the New Paltz Backup Community Water Supply Project public report.

The document said this test resulted in the discovery of “very good” water quality, drawdowns extending under the Plains Road neighborhood in both rock and sediment wells and that 90 percent of the aquifer returned to normal in 17 days.

According to Ted and Carol Cryer, this initial May 2014 test may have caused the water from the aquifer to develop certain contaminants. At the request of Plains Road residents, Clouser and Chazen Co. provided water monitoring of wells for 40 homes after the May 2014 initial pump test.

Ted Cryer then reached out to the owners of those 40 homes who were tested by Clouser and Chazen Co. to ask for the results of these tests, and received 25 responses. He created a spreadsheet cataloging these responses which indicates that out of the 25 homes, 68 percent reported high levels of coliform and 52 percent reported high levels of lead. This spreadsheet is based on the results of this individual test. This is a water quality comparison pre July 2014 pump test and August 2014 after their pump test.

“The coliform bacteria was above the generally accepted levels, suggesting a water quality concern for homeowners,” Ted Cryer said. “We then decided to compile a summary of the quality impacts based on reports. We emailed all of the monitored households and received responses back from 25 of the 40 homes tested.”

According to Freedman, her water did not have any contaminants prior to the July pump test. However, Freedman said that after the test her water was found to have elevated levels of total coliform.

Despite all of this, Ted Cryer and Freedman said the residents will never know the true extent of all the testing’s impact on their water quality, because there is no true baseline data of water quality that was collected before May 2014.

“More people may well have had negative impacts on their water because of the May testing, but we’ll never know for sure, because they failed to measure,” Freedman said. “For example, someone who tested positive for total coliform before the July test and after the July test may well have been negative before the May test.“

Additionally, Ted Cryer said  three homes had pumping issues, with wells drying up after the pump test. In response, Dave Clouser & Chazen Co. quickly responded to repair the issues and provide bottled water or 500 gallon tanks on the lawns of three homes.

The Plains Road Water Watch hired hydrologist Paul A. Rubin of HydroQuest to review Phase II further and explore the worry potential damage to the aquifer in the long run of the shutdown.

According to a fact sheet created by HydroQuest, the pumping test implemented by Clouser and Chazen Co. does not indicate the aquifer will provide water throughout the duration of the shutdown since it took over two weeks to recover from the tests.

“Failure of the aquifer to recover to pre-pumping conditions within a month raises serious concern regarding the ability of the aquifer to sustain long-term, high-yield, production over time,” the fact sheet said.

As a result of this, it is the concern of Water Watch members that the 72-hour pump test was insufficient in reflecting what the water quality will be like during the entirety of the shutdown and in years after.

New Paltz Town Supervisor Neil Bettez said although he was not in office when these tests occurred, things can always be done better and the engineers have been doing the best job they can.

“The thing is, once the water district is implemented, the residents won’t need their wells anymore,” Bettez said. “If they want to keep their wells they absolutely can.”

Bettez said the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has put up a fund of $125,000 that Clouser estimated will be paying the fees to hook up residents to the new municipal water structure. Bettez said the DEP will also pay plumbers to hook up facilities inside of the homes themselves.

At one point throughout the 10-year conversation, the Wallkill River, which runs 88 miles from Lake Mohawk, New Jersey to Roundout Creek, New York, was an explored option. However, the idea has been scrapped due to a variety of reasons.

“The DEP would not cover the costs of cleaning the Wallkill, but no one ever asked them to,” Kerr said. “The preconceived notion not to use the Wallkill was just as much political as it was technical.”

In concurrence with many concerned Plains Road residents, Kerr said one of the main issues with the proposed water district is the negative environmental impact it will have.

Additionally, according to the HydroQuest factsheet, said all potential water supply sources should be fully assessed prior to advancing a Plains Road application for a water supply permit coordinated through New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).

On the contrary, according to Town Councilman Jeff Logan, some towns do use river water from the Hudson; the Hudson is a Class A stream (water body), permitted for treatment to potable water, with proper applications and studies. Logan said that the Wallkill is a Class B steam (water body), which is not permitted for treatment to potable water.

“There are no Class B waterways in New York used for treatment to potable water,” Logan said. “There was a small town upstate starting application process a few years ago but the plan did not work out and the application was pulled.”

Bettez said as a volunteer coordinator of the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance, he would like to see the Wallkill cleaned in the next 20 years.       In order for the Wallkill to be drinkable now, it would require much more treatment including filtering and adding chemicals.

“If we really had to have used the Wallkill as a source of water, I would have held my nose and swallowed,” Bettez said. “I much prefer the Plains Road aquifer — it does not have to be treated and it is reliable.”

Aside from the array of political and technical discourse surrounding this issue, some say that this is an ethical debate for New Paltz.

“I have been living in my home since I was 22 years old, using my own water from my own well,” Liebman said. “Plains Road is a self-sustaining community, this is our lifestyle.”

Those residents in concurrence with Liebman feel opting out of municipal water is not an option at all. According to these residents they will be charged for water regardless and their wells will be damaged.

Those who reject the idea of the water district also say their water fees should be covered for the entirety of the residency at Plains Road, not just five or six years. According to Logan, however, it is not plausible or legal to give a lifetime of free water. Logan said it is unconstitutional to provide free water (or any other public resources) to an individual class of residents.

“I’m all for progress, but this project will take the people’s water and sell it back to them,” Kerr said.

According to Rocco, the third phase of this project should be coming to a conclusion this spring or early summer, followed by the fourth and last phase which is the actual implementation and construction of the various elements of the overall backup water supply in Fall 2016.

“That is the projected calendar so far, unless the DEP makes changes to its shut down schedule,” Rocco said. “It cannot be done sooner, but could be done later.”