Drilling rigs out on the flats on Route 299 West in New Paltz have prompted some curious looks from passersby. All that digging is part of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) search for drinking water, town and village officials said.
“This is not a study to look at more sources of water for us to develop,” Mayor Jason West explained. “It’s really a matter for us to get enough water to deal with 10 weeks of on-and-off shutdowns.”
New Paltz’s main water supply will be shut off for a 10-week period as New York City repairs the Catskill Aqueduct in 2016. City officials have partnered with the town and village to explore for alternatives.
According to Susan Zimet, the town supervisor, drilling has so far taken place near Wallkill View Farm and at least one test well has been set up.
“They are also drilling in two locations to the bottom of the old river bed to see if other water-bearing materials are located there at a greater depth,” said David Clouser, the town engineer.
Village of New Paltz’s water system taps into the city’s aqueduct, and New Paltz uses between 700,000 and one-million gallons of water daily. Town users buy water from the village, but they represent a small fraction of that daily usage — just 70,000 gallons.
“They’re a drop in the bucket,” said the mayor, referring to town water users.
Despite its bad reputation, water from the Wallkill River is also being explored as a drinking water alternative. West noted that convincing people that water from the Wallkill is safe to drink might be a tough sell, however.
“Say, for argument’s sake, that there is a way for us to treat it so it is safe to drink. It doesn’t matter, because people are going to be terrified of drinking it,” the mayor said.
Educating people about the safety of that option might drag the process out longer than just drilling wells on available land, he added.
Other options, like hooking up to Gardiner’s or Highland’s water supplies are possible too, but they would be cost prohibitive.
Mayor West started working on creating a backup supply during his first term in 2004. New York City eventually delayed the Catskill Aqueduct repair, and the project lost steam when Mayor Terry Dungan defeated West.
After he won re-election, Mayor West found himself, nearly a decade later, facing the same water supply issue.
Supervisor Zimet sees the development of a backup supply as a way to create a community water system. Right now, town water users pay a higher “out of district” rate because they’re buying municipal water from the village.
Zimet thinks the dual rate structure is hurting businesses in the urbanized sections of town near the village line. On top of drilling for drinking water, she’d like to see the village and town craft an inter-municipal agreement to bring down costs for town users.
“At the end of the day, it would be one water district so there would be no ‘out of district’ user,” she said.
Mayor West has at times complained that Town Hall is muscling in on a village-only issue. He’s worried that new water infrastructure might prompt development in parts of the town that should be kept rural.
“You have to be very careful about where you run water and sewer lines,” he said. “With the village, I’m not concerned — density is what we want.”
West said he thought it might make sense for town leaders to push for density in hamlet areas, such as Ohioville. But he failed to understand what point expansion of municipal water would have in rural areas.
“I know the town has been desperate to try to find a water supply. I never really understood why, to be honest,” he said. West said he felt that various town supervisors have seen creating an independent town water supply as “the holy grail.”
The mayor added: “The first question is, ‘What do you want do you want to pave over so badly that you want to invest millions of dollars to duplicate a system that already exists?’”
However, there is some crossover and areas of the town — like the shopping centers and industrial sectors — which are more urban. Town officials want water there if it isn’t there already, and they’d like to see water rates come down for existing users.
Zimet said she thinks water should be expanded into the urbanized sections of the Town of New Paltz only. Main Street from Ulster Savings Bank to the ShopRite plaza is a good example of a dense, urban area of the town.
She believes that a community water system could help both municipalities draw the line of where they’d like to see dense development in the future.
“I believe that we all collectively share the same vision,” Zimet said. “It’ll help the urban part of the town and protect the rural part of the town.”
Town officials are cooperating in the search by offering up town-owned lands to the list of places where the city’s DEP is drilling.
While the water backup project could cost about $7 million, the DEP is paying for the costs — at least for right now. Mayor West said he was hopeful the city will pay for most or all of the process, keeping local costs to taxpayers and water users at a low.
Without a new backup supply, New Paltz would only have enough water reserves for five days. New York City plans to shut down the aqueduct for repairs in 2016, but also for 10 weeks in 2017 as well.