At a packed informational meeting last Thursday about the proposed creation of a new Water District 5 in New Paltz, opponents of the project to pump water from a wellsite at 101 Plains Road appeared to be running low on things to find objectionable, while a growing number of residents of the neighborhood actually expressed enthusiasm for the package promised to all who agree to hook up to the new water distribution system. For the first time since public discussions began on the proposed solution to impending ten-week cutoffs in supplies of water from the Catskill Aqueduct, it has begun to seem feasible if not probable that a majority of potential Water District residents will support its creation.
While some of the most vocal opponents of the project turned out at the meeting, many of their persistent questions regarding the project were finally answered. At past meetings, neighborhood activist Donna Liebman has repeatedly asked town and village officials why the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) process had not yet gotten underway, and each time was told that it could not until the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had officially registered New Paltz’s plan as a “project.” Now that has finally occurred, reimbursement of project expenses by DEP has begun to flow and the Town of New Paltz has declared itself lead agency for the environmental review. Town engineer David Clouser assured Liebman that the town would not wait for the end of the 30-day period following lead agency designation to begin work on SEQR. “It has to be done,” deputy town supervisor Jeff Logan agreed.
According to Logan, SEQRA rules also permit the project to go forward whether or not a Water District is created, “as long as some mitigation is provided” for residents whose well water is negatively impacted by pumping of water from the aquifer underlying the Wallkill riverbed during the ten-week shutdowns. The DEP’s Dan Michaud, who was also present at the meeting, said that the first shutdown period, previously scheduled for the spring of 2017, has now been postponed to the fall of that year.
Hydrogeologist Russell Urban-Mead illustrated his presentation on why the aquifer was chosen with cross-sections showing a “buried bedrock gorge” storing “just terrific water” beneath an impermeable clay layer underlying the Wallkill River and the northerly end of Plains Road. According to Urban-Mead, “Wells nearer 101 Plains Road will experience greater influences than those farther away” during the pumping periods, and wells shallower than 100 to 150 feet would be more likely to have reduced yield. He said that the aquifer would be tapped only when needed on a “last on, first off” basis.
Clouser pointed out that even if a Water District is created, residents may opt out of hooking up to the new distribution system and rely on their own wells for their sole water source — although the infrastructure for a future hookup will still be installed at DEP’s expense, should homeowners later change their minds or sell their properties to people who want to opt in. Another option is to maintain separate plumbing systems in one’s home: one using guaranteed pure town-supplied water for drinking and bathing and another using well water only for applications where possible elevated contaminant levels would not be an issue, like watering lawns, washing cars and filling swimming pools.
This dual-source option seemed to interest Plains Road resident Chris Harp, who said that his apiary business “uses well over 6,000 gallons a month,” the minimum amount of town water guaranteed to Water District users per household. “If my well runs dry, what do I do?” He also expressed concern about the chlorine required for treatment of town water, but was assured by Clouser that DEP would provide whole-house carbon filtration systems free of charge to any Water District 5 resident seeking chlorine removal.
The engineer said that the New York City water agency had legally committed itself to pay for all expenses related to “operation, pumping, monitoring, distribution, testing, reporting, billing and administration” for the water project, including in-home plumbing hookups. Town employees would be responsible for treating and pumping the water, and Department of Public Works from the Village of New Paltz employees may take care of water main maintenance if contractual issues can be worked out between the two municipalities.
In addition, DEP has put up a fund of $125,000 that Clouser estimated would ensure that Water District 5 residents will not have to pay any water bills for the first five to six years of operation, after which monthly bills are estimated to average $18 per month per household. A bill-free water supply could extend even longer once the income for water sold by the town to the Village of New Paltz during shutdown periods is figured in, since by law, a Water District is not permitted to make a profit.
“What happens if the shutdown extends past ten weeks?” asked Liebman. “It can’t, by the contract,” Logan responded. “We control the water. At Week Ten we no longer have a responsibility to help DEP.” Michaud corroborated this, adding that the nature of the aqueduct maintenance work consisted of “fixing valves and cleaning things. We’re not doing work that can’t be valved and shut up.”
While some residents remained skeptical, citing elevated levels of E. coli, coliform and lead that they claim appeared in some Plains Road wells following pumping tests, others seemed sold on the fully funded Water District as a “bulletproof solution,” in one resident’s words, too good to pass up. “For those who feel threatened, you’ve got to play the cards that are in your hand,” said Bob Cucchiara, addressing his neighbors in the audience. “The town could do this anyway. Do you want to take the risk that you’re going to be okay [relying on existing wells], or do you want to take a guarantee that you will always have water?” Another resident joked that the $18 monthly fee would “cost a lot less than your cable bill, and bring a lot less pollution into your home.”
According to town attorney Joe Moriello, there are two scenarios under which the proposed Water District can be established. “If the Town Board decides on its own motion to form a Water District, residents can petition for a permissive referendum” that could shoot it down if not enough residents in the affected neighborhood vote for it. Until recently, this seemed like the likeliest outcome. But based on the level of positive response elicited at last week’s meeting, there may be a chance of the other possible road being taken by Plains Roaders: Supporters can mount their own petition asking for a Water District to be created. And if they get enough signatures, said Moriello, there will be no referendum necessary to make it so.