Niagara’s recent announcement that it was no longer considering the Town of Ulster as a site for a proposed bottling plant brought a close to a controversy, but leaves behind unanswered questions including, critically, how the Kingston Water Department will pay for some $18 million in infrastructure replacement and upgrades without the infusion of cash anticipated from the Niagara deal.
The proposal by the California based bottler to build a sprawling plant near the former IBM campus and purchase up to 1.75 million gallons of water a day from the city’s municipal supply spurred strong opposition from some residents of Kingston and Woodstock where the city’s Cooper Lake watershed is located. The vocal opposition raised a number of environmental and legal concerns, including whether Woodstock should have a say in how and to whom Kingston can sell water.
For Town of Ulster Supervisor James Quigley III, who backed the Niagara proposal, the company’s withdrawal in the face of local opposition was a bad omen for future economic development in the area. Quigley has said that Woodstock’s assertion that it has a say in the use of Kingston water could scare off developers who, like Niagara might need access to large quantities of Kingston water.
“There were numerous issues raised in opposition to this project,” said Quigley. “And that could have consequences down the line.”
Quigley said that a recent water emergency in Kingston had illustrated that the town could meet its own water needs independently of the city’s system. In fact, Quigley said, he believed the town could actually save money by running its own water operation rather than purchasing water from Kingston. Such a solution, Quigley conceded, would be complicated by the fact that the town is just 11 years into an 99 year lease agreement with the Kingston Water Department.
“If we are facing a major, major increase in the cost of water from the city, I think the only proper decision is to go back on our own system,” said Quigley. “Town of Ulster residents should not pay more because a small group of Kingston residents expressed concern about the environmental cost.”
But Woodstock Town Supervisor Jeremy Wilber said that he hoped the issues raised by the Niagara controversy would foster a more cooperative, rather than adversarial relationship between the mountain town and its down-county neighbors. Wilber said that the Niagara issue had highlighted not just the dire condition of the city’s water infrastructure, but the fact that the aging pipes represented a regional issue. Wilber said that he had written letters to state and federal representatives urging more infrastructure funding for the city and he called on those who had fought against the deal with the bottling company to turn their attention to a solution.
“It is my sincere wish that the same urgency people felt about the proposed bottling plant will now be funneled into helping Kingston get a reasonable amount of funding to address infrastructure,” said Wilber.
Those infrastructure needs include a state mandated redesign of the Cooper Lake dam which is expected to cost $6 million. Another $12 million in replacements and upgrades are planned for the next five years. Issues with the city’s water infrastructure were highlighted last week when a 130 year old transmission line burst leaving the city frighteningly close to losing water service. Kingston Water Superintendent Judith Hansen said that similarly outdated infrastructure plagues the entire system leaving it prone to water main breaks, leakage and other problems. Hansen said this week that, with the Niagara deal off the table, it would fall to current water department customers to foot the bill for the upgrades.
“It’s out of our hands,” said Hansen. “There are no other large consumers knocking on our door so it will have to be our consumers.”
No hasty decisions
During the controversy over the bottling plant, opponents suggested at least one potential fix for the infrastructure dilemma — reworking the department’s fee structure to shift the more of the burden from small residential consumers to large commercial ones. But Hansen said the current rate structure reflected the fact that it was cheaper per gallon to supply large users than small ones. Hansen added that none of the suggestions or criticisms leveled by opponents accurately reflected the issues faced by the department.
“They made a lot of wild statements,” said Hansen. “We didn’t feel it was our job to tell them that they really needed to do their homework.”
Mayor Shayne Gallo and others have proposed turning to the state for support calling for a massive statewide infrastructure bond similar to the 1996 Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act which funneled $1.75 billion into municipal water systems and other environmental projects. But it is unclear if or when that might happen.
“Everybody is saying ‘oh we’ll just get it from the state’,” said Quigley. “But (in a recent newspaper editorial board in Syracuse) Cuomo made it pretty clear that the money is not there to give.”
But opponents of the proposal said that they worried financial pressure was pushing water department officials towards a hasty and poorly thought out decision on the future of the city’s water supply. Common Council Majority Leader Matt Dunn (D-Ward 1), who with fellow Aldermen pushed through a series of non-binding resolutions sought by opponents of the Niagara plant said that he hoped the ongoing infrastructure discussion could take place in a less hurried atmosphere.
“Now we can turn on sights on how to deal with these problems,” said Dunn. “I think that (with Niagara off the table) we can have those discussions in a more productive manner.”