The issue wasn’t on the agenda, and the Kingston Common Council likely won’t have a vote on it, but that didn’t stop more than 300 area residents from packing into the Kingston common council chambers Tuesday, October 8. They voiced strident opposition to a proposal to sell city water, piped from Cooper Lake in Woodstock, to a national bottling corporation.
Public speaking is typically allotted 30 minutes on the Common Council agenda. At Tuesday’s meeting the session lasted three hours.
Speaker after speaker rose to voice objections to the proposal currently under consideration by the Kingston water commissioners. The deal which is being weighed by the water board calls for the sale of up to 1.75 million gallons of “surplus” water each day to California-based Niagara Bottling.
The water from the city’s Cooper Lake watershed in Woodstock would be pumped through existing water mains. An additional line will be installed by the company in the town of Ulster, leading to a site near the former IBM campus where Niagara plans to build the bottling plant. Backers of the proposal say the water sale would allow the water department to replace $16 million in aged, failure-prone infrastructure without raising consumer water rates.
Kingston water superintendent Judith Hansen, water department attorney Bill Cloonan and mayor Shayne Gallo showed up the council meeting in an attempt to quell the speculation, alarm and outrage that has built since news of the proposal, which has been quietly under discussion since April. News of it first appeared in local media last month.
Hansen told the crowd that preliminary results of an analysis conducted by an outside engineering firm indicted that the city’s water system could meet Niagara’s needs. Hansen also cited precedent, noting that the city had been able to commit a million gallons of water a day to the now largely vacant IBM complex even during a historic 1957 drought. Hansen also told the crowd that the law was clear — the department could only sell surplus water. The city would retain the power to reduce or cut off entirely Niagara’s supply in the event of a severe water emergency. Hansen expressed dismay about the overheated, and, what she felt was sometimes fact-lacking rhetoric that had accompanied news of the deal.
“As someone who has spent her professional life in a fact-based world of science and public health,” Hansen said, “the hyperbole and near-hysteria that seems to be developing around the potential sale of water to Niagara is deeply disturbing.”
Appreciate every drop
Opponents of the proposal gave little consideration to Hansen’s statement. Speaker after speaker took the podium to level a barrage of objections based on everything from the potential impact of climate change on the watershed to the impact of plastic water bottles on ocean life. Several speakers cited a prolonged and painful drought in California as a cautionary tale about profligate water use.
Alex Beauchamp of the environmental watchdog group Food and Water Watch traveled from Brooklyn to make the case against the water deal. Beauchamp said that providing water to corporate bottlers differed from virtually every other water use, even industrial uses, in that it permanently removed the resource from the local ecosystem.
“They don’t replenish what they pump out. They ship it away from the watershed,” said Beauchamp. “It’s gone forever. It doesn’t come back.”
Other speakers assailed the bottled water industry in general for turning a public resource into a source of corporate profit, polluting the environment and contributing to over-reliance on fossil fuels by using petroleum products to manufacture bottles.
“Selling pure water to another corporation to be bottled and sold should be a crime,” said Raji Nevin of Woodstock. “Every drop from every faucet should be appreciated and not taken for granted.”
While opponents addressed their remarks to the Common Council, the decision on whether to close the deal with Niagara lies almost entirely with the city’s board of water commissioners. The five-member board is appointed by the mayor, who also serves as a voting member. Upon its inception in 1895, the board was set up to have a large degree of autonomy to insulate its decisions about a vital resource from the vagaries and corruption of municipal politics.
Hansen told the crowd that the board has the exclusive right to enter into contracts to sell surplus water. To a crowd that included a large contingent of Woodstock residents, she said that that town did not have a say in the deal. While Cooper Lake is located in Woodstock the town does not use water from the system. Hansen noted that a 1929 state decree from the precursor agency to the modern Department of Environmental Conservation, granted Woodstock the right to draw water from the system, she said. Those agreements have always been taken into account by the water department, she added.
“However, that document does not give Woodstock any rights to determine who the Kingston water department can sell water to, or dictate the terms of that sale,” Hansen said, “Any more than the City of Kingston would have the right to prevent New York City from selling water to a downstate community, or adding a large consumer just because we have rights to the water in the Ashokan.”
Who are the involved parties?
Woodstock town supervisor Jeremy Wilber said at the meeting that he believed the water deal would need approval from the state Department of Conservation. As evidence he pointed to the original 1929 state authorization to draw water from Cooper Lake and a 1956 approval to connect the system to the newly built IBM complex. Wilber said that documents clearly indicated that DEC was an “involved party” in the water sale.
Wilber and Kingston community activist Rebecca Martin suggested that water deal could be subject to a more rigorous environmental review than the one now under way. Currently the Town of Ulster is serving as lead agency on a State Environmental Quality Review Act action for the construction of the bottling plant.
Martin and Wilber said that the circumstances and potential impacts of the proposal were such that a more extensive review involving the DEC, the Kingston Common Council and the Town of Woodstock should be mandated. They also suggested that another SEQRA action might be needed to weigh the impact of the water sale separately from the construction of the bottling plant.
“The people of the Town of Woodstock have a concern with this that on its face should be of even greater concern to the residents of Kingston,” said Wilber. “And as such our peoples are partners, not adversaries.”