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Cornell: Rockland Doesn’t Need A Water Project

Harriet Cornell, Chairwoman Rock Co Legislatureby Harriet Cornell

Rockland County Legislature Chairwoman Harriet Cornell addressed the NYS Public Service Commission hearings on the need for new water supply earlier this month.

Thoughtful consideration and wise decisions made by the PSC are of critical importance to the people of NY State—and certainly for Rockland County. The hearings have been called in order for the PSC to ascertain need for a new water supply—and– if you find that Rockland has sufficient water and there is no need—then, it is my understanding that the process is over. If there is need, it will lead to studying how best to meet it in the most cost- effective and least painful way for rate-payers.

I will certainly follow your instructions for these hearings, to focus on the question of need–but forgive me for expressing a level of frustration and confusion which has dogged this process over the past six or seven years since UWNY announced its preferred project—a desalination plant to convert brackish water in the Hudson for drinking water.

Period for Public Comment Extended

The PSC will be accepting comments until Nov. 8 via telephone, internet or mail.

  • Written comments can be mailed to Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary, Public Service Commission, Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 12223-1350.
  • If you live in New York State, you can also call in your comments to the PSC’s Opinion Line at 1-800-335-2120 toll free 24 hours a day.

Your comments should refer to Case 13-W-0303-Proceeding on Motion of the Commission to Examine United Water New York, Inc.’s Development of a New Long-Term Water Supply Source.

It has been a never-never land of twists and turns—calls for the DEC to hold an issues conference which is a reasonably standard process have been ignored, so disputed issues of fact raised by the DEIS have never been resolved. Thousands of signatures, hundreds of meetings, scores of legislative resolutions have fallen into a void. Not-for-profit organizations and local governments have spent their resources on studies focused on one project. And there has been a role reversal involving the two state agencies involved in determining adequate water supply and its cost. The PSC which normally addresses rates is determining adequacy of supply. The DEC which normally focuses on environmental impacts including supply needs, appears to be evaluating the cost of a particular project as well as of alternatives. It’s no wonder collective heads are spinning.

But—believe me– I appreciate your desire to hear from the public and to provide transparency to the process. I also know the PSC has a wide-ranging jurisdiction. As it says on your website, The Public Service Commission of the State of New York has been “ensuring safe, reliable service and just and reasonable rates since 1907.” And state law forming the PSC gives it sweeping powers and responsibilities.

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I will address Section 5, #2 of PSC Law. “The commission shall encourage all persons and corporations subject to its jurisdiction to formulate and carry out long-range programs, individually or cooperatively, for the performance of their public service responsibilities with economy, efficiency, and care for the public safety, the preservation of environmental values and the conservation of natural resources.”

My comments will focus on how to determine need objectively and then how to ensure that the need for water is met while still ensuring “Just and reasonable rates”. And I will present a plan for a Task Force of “persons and corporations subject to PSC jurisdiction to formulate and carry out long-range programs, with economy, efficiency, and care for the public safety, the preservation of environmental values and the conservation of natural resources.”

Offers of proof from testimony at previous hearings tell us that the combined capacity of the Rockland water supply system, managed properly, will be adequate to meet projected future need for a long period of time—ten years—sufficient to make any decision to increase supply via an infrastructure project unnecessary.

Given the evidence that demand in recent years has been significantly less than previous projections relied on at the time of the original order (which as you well know was never a requirement for a single project) it is necessary to focus on safe yield of Lake DeForest, better management of existing water resources, groundwater recharge rates and available demand side management techniques.

I would like to start with a real-life story which had major implications for Rockland County’s future and this county’s ability to conserve natural resources with economy, efficiency and the preservation of environmental values (as the Public Service Commission law enshrines) while preventing what undoubtedly would have become a stranded investment.

Over 25 years ago a garbage barge (the Mobro 4000)* hauled the same load of trash from Islip in Suffolk County, NY to Belize and back again– unable to dispose of it because of a national landfill shortage. Rockland County decided to construct an expensive incinerator to burn the County’s trash. A site was selected and a land purchase was about to occur, when environmental activists prevailed upon legislators to reduce the waste stream by supporting recycling instead. I remember this well: I was a relatively new legislator. Today the RC Solid Waste Management Authority efficiently deals with the County’s recyclable materials and collects revenue to offset its operating costs. Recycling is a more sustainable solution and has spawned all sorts of other environmental programs. County residents have embraced recycling as a way of life.

New information has come to light since 2010—and certainly since 2006. The fact that the PSC ordered UW to develop a long-term source to ensure Rockland’s projected need for water was not an order for a single piece of infrastructure. There are a number of ways to ensure water supply, and Rockland’s Water Coalition has been examining model programs in this country and overseas, working with elected officials and nationally-known experts to offer a plan that will satisfy the need, protect ratepayers, create more permanent jobs and promote economic development.

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Relevant new information includes:

  • 2007 – Fines by NYS DEC of UWNY for illegal releases from Lake DeForest –
  • Documentation of illegal water releases from Lake DeForest led to $10,000 in fines levied against UWNY by NYS DEC.
  • 2010 – Passage of the Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy by NYS Legislature
  • Effective September 29, 2010, the Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Act requires most state agencies and all state authorities, to prepare and file a Smart Growth Impact Statement finding that the project is consistent with the Smart Growth Criteria or justifying why it is not practicable to do so prior to approving or funding any public infrastructure project. The relevant public infrastructure projects are defined very broadly as consisting of “transportation, sewer and waste water treatment, water, education, housing and other publicly supported infrastructure.”
  • 2010 – Request by Rockland County Legislature that NYS DEC Conduct a 50-Year Audit of UWNY’s Operation of Lake DeForest, Nov. 4, 2010 – The County Legislature passed a resolution requesting that NYS DEC conduct a 50-year audit of the operations of Lake DeForest to assess the water needs of Rockland County. This was prompted by documented releases of nearly 2 million gallons per day over and above the permit for 9.75 mgd.
  • 2011 – Request by Rockland County Legislature that NYS DEC conduct an operational evaluation of Lake DeForest Dam, October 6, 2011 – The purpose of the evaluation was to determine whether UWNY’s failure to release water in advance of Hurricane Irene caused or contributed to downstream flooding.
  • 2010 – Availability of 2010 U.S. Census Figures– Over the next 30 years, the growth in the number of residents 65 years and older will comprise a major shift in the age structure of Rockland’s population, adding more than 23,300 persons and accounting for 48% of total growth. We know that people on fixed incomes are not going to be able to pay higher rates for water – and that increased rates will exert downward pressure on demand.
  • 2011 – Release of the U.S.G.S. report by Paul Heisig entitled Water Resources of Rockland County, New York, 2005-2007, with Emphasis on the Newark Basin Bedrock Aquifer, February, 2011 – Based on available data and computer modeling, that study indicates that the Newark Basin aquifer can and is replenishing itself at sustainable rates during non-peak periods. Peak water use during the summer can be addressed in a variety of ways far less costly than the proposed project.
  • 2011 – Adoption of Rockland Tomorrow: Rockland County Comprehensive Plan, March 1, 2011. The County’s Comprehensive Plan calls for a Comprehensive Water Plan which focuses on best management practices, leak control, and conservation and makes recommendations regarding waste water reuse, storm water, impervious area, etc.
  • 2012 – Publication of Water Conservation and Long-Term Water Supply Planning in the Hudson Valley: A Rockland County Case Study, Stuart Braman and Simon Gruber, CRREO, Discussion Brief #7.
  • 2013 – Release of Mid-Hudson Regional Sustainability Plan, March 2013, prepared by Ecology and Environment, Inc., for the Mid-Hudson Planning Consortium. Water was highlighted as one of the five themes. The first of eight objectives for water use is “Increase available water supply by reducing water consumption.”
  • 2013 – Passage by the States of New York and New Jersey of the Rockland Bergen Bi-State River Commission Legislation. A bi-state commission would identify and address potential flood hazards and protect the watersheds of shared rivers and creeks. This legislation is awaiting signature by Governor Cuomo.
  • 2013 – Request by County Executive Scott Vanderhoef that DEC Reopen the Water Supply Permit for Lake DeForest and renegotiate the rule curve. This was based on research by former New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Water Manager Robert Kecskes. His report stated that the average amount of water that could be diverted from Lake DeForest could be increased from 9.75 mgd to more than 14 mgd if DeForest employed the same passing flow requirements as used in New Jersey.
  • 2013 – The Intra-company Agreement between United Water New York and United Water New Jersey expired on September 26. This agreement spells out how the two entities share costs. We ask that the agreement reflect the value of drinking water and not just the operation of the reservoirs.
  • 2013 – Release of Report by Albert F. Appleton, Former NYC Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection and Director of Water Supply regarding the proposed Project to Desalinate Hudson River Water. Mr. Appleton report concluded that Rockland needs better water supply management, not new supply.

NYS Does Not Conduct Long Term Water Supply Planning

Unfortunately there is no state leadership on water supply, no state water plan and no State Plan for water conservation. Some parts of the State have regional water commissions, but Rockland is not one of them. In the 1980s New York State actually conducted water planning but that function has since been divided among DOH, PSC and four offices within the NYS DEC with no one agency responsible for developing a comprehensive approach to water supply planning. Jurisdictional issues also abound around the issue of water supply, quality, rates and conservation. DEC monitors water quality and withdrawals and promotes water conservation but does not support regional water planning. Rockland borders New Jersey and some Rockland water naturally flows through the Hackensack River and Lake Tappan into New Jersey. There is an agreement between the two companies, UWNY and UWNJ but no bi-state water commission or plan.

Rockland County needs to develop a process and a strategy to prepare a comprehensive, long term plan to address water supply.

The County of Rockland is ready to take the lead on water conservation and to develop a comprehensive plan, starting with the best management practices we have listed in our 2011 Comprehensive Plan Rockland Tomorrow and investigating the successful models we are seeing throughout the country and beyond.: What would serve the purposes of the PSC, I believe, is for you to endorse a task force, comprised of county government—executive, legislature, DOH, Dept of Planning, UWNY, Rockland Water Coalition, business interests, Lamont Doherty (Columbia U.), residents to develop a plan.

Task Force

The county should convene a task force to develop a comprehensive long-term County Water Plan to ensure a safe, long-term water supply for Rockland that incorporates sustainability, demand-side principles and conservation. This is a mission which is a key part of the County Comprehensive Plan adopted in 2011. The planning process will ensure that we understand our water consumption usage patterns and trends, available water resources and costs associated with various alternatives.

The process must be transparent, collaborative and inclusive; members would include representatives from United Water New York, elected officials, staff from New York State Department of Conservation and the PSC, environmental and Hudson River advocates, businesses and the general public.

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This process will allow us to identify and conduct analyses that are essential to understanding our unique situation in Rockland including but not limited to the potential rate of aquifer recharge, consumption patterns of Rockland households and businesses, and modeling of various rate increases. Regulation, management, education, and incentives will be explored.

Specific analyses include but are not limited to:

  1. a baseline analysis of current water consumption and usage for residential, institutional, industrial and commercial users;
  2. trends analysis for future water consumption in the County, given the national trend of lower water consumption
  3. a cost benefit analyses for an aggressive leak management program by United Water New York to determine the most optimal investment to address leakage,
  4. an economic modeling of the impact on demand of ascending block rates
  5. an audit of Lake DeForest water releases for the past ten years.

All members of the task force should agree on methodology, goals for the studies and the use of independent parties to conduct the analyses.

This plan must include objectives, goals, a timetable, staffing plan, reporting requirements and a realistic budget to support its implementation.

Fortunately, we have the time to give this issue the attention it requires. Until this hearing, it appeared that the collective “we” were on the verge again of doing something that isn’t necessary, environmentally sustainable or cost-effective. In fact, UW NY’s applications for rate increases and a surcharge demonstrated that the handwriting is on the wall, for any project that is too expensive for commercial or residential ratepayers to buy.

Without being facetious, the reality is that UW’s proposed project has created enormous public awareness about the value of water and galvanized the public in opposition. We are in a better place now with regard to educational efforts, greater understanding of water as a finite resource, and the need to plan and preserve. A stirring example of water conservation comes from the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA), responsible for the water supply for the 2.3 million people in the greater Boston area. Facing a major infrastructure project to increase water supply, they reduced per capita water consumption by one third after a sustained conservation effort. Their per capita usage rate is currently 56-60 gallons per day. This was achieved by first addressing ‘lost water’ or leaks in the system, implementing code changes, and instituting an aggressive conservation program. The program included directly installing water saving devices in homes, public education to teachers and students, outreach to the private sector and collaboration with other utilities. The leak detection program is on-going, as is the public education. As its Director of Research explained in a phone call, “The best time to do conservation is when you have people’s attention. “ We have the public’s attention and, thankfully, the attention of the PSC .

If we harness the professional and technical expertise of UWNY with the passion and commitment of the public, the business community and Rockland County government, I am convinced that together we can develop a plan to ensure a sustainable water future for Rockland. with –as the Public Service Law states: “economy, efficiency, and care for the public safety, the preservation of environmental values and the conservation of natural resources.” Rockland has no need for a water project.

Harriet Cornell is the Chairwoman of the Rockland County Legislature.

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