Mayor: Syracuse, N.Y., water infrastructure system in crisis

Like many cities across the nation, Syracuse, N.Y., is grappling with how to pay for fixing its deteriorating water infrastructure system in order to ease costly, and often daily, water main breaks.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner has made repairing and replacing the city’s more than 100-year-old water infrastructure system with 550 miles of water mains a top priority. What once was an occasional problem in the winter with water mains bursting has become a year-round menace. The city has faced 119 water main breaks so far this year, and more than 2,000 water main breaks over the last 10 years.

“We’re starting to get complaints from people all around city, talking about the fact that we cannot provide predictable water and it’s interrupting their business, their homes and their lifestyle,” Miner said in an interview on Monday. “It’s a crisis.”

Improvements and repairs to the city’s water infrastructure system are estimated to cost more than $1 billion, Miner said. That would pay for updating all the water facilities, including water storage and pumping facilities, and could be funded over 10 or 15 years.

Over the past 20 years, the federal government and the state of New York have cut back on infrastructure funding. Miner is now sounding the alarm. She met with U.S. Rep. John Katko last week to discuss water infrastructure funding at the federal level. The city is hoping the federal government will provide loans or grants to help it pay for some of its repairs.

Miner said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not been supportive at the state level in terms of helping Syracuse address its water infrastructure funding needs.

The Environmental Facilities Corp., a New York state agency, provides low-cost financing for local wastewater and drinking water infrastructure, and Cuomo says the state does more than any other state to finance local wastewater infrastructure projects. Earlier this year, Cuomo announced that the state made it easier for municipalities with fewer than 300,000 people to obtain interest-free financing for up to 30 years to improve wastewater collection and treatment plants.

But Miner said with the financial pressures municipalities are facing with funding pensions, healthcare and other needs, they cannot afford to pay off loans as well.

“We need grants,” Miner said.

The New York State Comptroller’s Office found that the decline in local government spending on water and sewer systems was significant, according to a report from September. In 2012, combined spending was $291 million, or 19 percent less than the $360 million spent by municipalities in 2010. The decline in spending reflects the phasing-out of certain federal funds, the rising costs of items such as asphalt and steel, as well as spending restraints from the state’s property tax cap, the report said.

Syracuse draws its water from Skaneateles Lake in the Finger Lakes region, more than 30 miles away from the city. The water is so clean that Syracuse is one of the few municipalities in the nation that does not have to filter its water.