Responding to concerns voiced by a group of town residents about water usage and its cost, Bethlehem officials said few changes could be made because of federal regulations, safety standards and the town’s water contract with Albany.
Commissioner of Public Works Erik Deyoe gave a presentation to the Bethlehem Town Board on Wednesday, Feb. 12, outlining the reasons a previous board opted to fund upgrades to the Clapper Road Water Treatment Plant in 2010. This came after a new citizen’s group calling themselves the Committee to Protect Our Resources, or POUR, said they felt the Clapper Road facility should be shuttered because the town was using far less water than it pays to receive from the city of Albany.
“Our preliminary estimates indicated the potential for saving millions of taxpayer dollars through better management of capital and operating expenditures,” said resident and former town board candidate Dan Cunningham, who formed the committee. “At a minimum, there is strong evidence that the town needs to defer additional capital investment at Clapper Road until the problems of excess water capacity and lost water resources is addressed.”
Cunningham said POUR consists of about 15 residents who are concerned about the amount of money the town will be spending to upgrade its water infrastructure when it already pays a steep price for Albany water. He put together his own analysis by using data provided by the town through the state’s Freedom of Information law, and said he believes the water produced from Clapper Road would actually be more expensive, after calculating in facility maintenance and upgrades.
Deyoe argued that the upgrades are needed and that the Clapper Road facility is a valuable resource.
“This is a different type of beast than a factory/economic situation,” said Deyoe, explaining there is an expectation from the public that they will always have clean water coming from their taps.
According to the DPW commissioner, regulations specify the town’s water supply must exceed the demand of its peak month from within the past 10 years. In order to do this, water is needed from all four of the town’s resources: Clapper Road, the Albany water contract, the New Salem Water Treatment Plant and the New Salem Wells. If Clapper Road were to close, more water would need to be purchased from Albany in order to replace it.
Deyoe said the town now pays $3.78 per 1,000 gallons of water from Albany, versus a cost of $1.73 at Clapper Road.
Councilwoman Joanne Dawson asked if analysis had been done to show that the price of Clapper Road water would continue to be cheaper than Albany water once the upgrades to the facility were taken into account. Deyoe said such a study had been done in 2010, and he could provide the board with those numbers at a later date.
The decision to upgrade Clapper Road was made four years ago in order to ramp up output from the plant. Built in 1994, the plant can provide 6 million gallons of water per day, but the chlorine pre-treatment system limits capacity to 3 million gallons a day. With upgrades already needed because of new federal safety standards for drinking water, the project would allow the pre-treatment system to be expanded so the plant can reach its full capacity.
Deyoe said because the town would be producing more water, the cost of production would also then decrease.
By opening up Clapper Road’s output to more of the town, the replacement of the New Salem plant could be put off for years, even with new federal quality regulations in place since 2012. Uniting the systems would make it easier for the town to deal with summer usage peaks, as Clapper Road can respond more speedily to those demands. A study was initiated in November 2013 to look into the potential designs of upgrading that facility and come up with a more precise cost.
Deyoe also said he thought closing the plant would be a mistake because of Albany’s aging water infrastructure, adding that there may come a time when the city is unable to get water to Bethlehem without major upgrades needed. He said having redundancies in the system allows for storage to accommodate emergencies, equipment failures, power outages and maintenance shutdowns. The supply also supports anticipated growth and economic development.
Supervisor John Clarkson said since the City of Albany has both a new water commissioner and mayor, he hopes they will agree to a meeting to possibly renegotiate the current water contract. Every five years, the minimum amount of water the town must take from Albany increases, according to the contract. The rate also increases each time the city increases the rate of its residents. Deyoe said from 2004 to 2014, the town paid a 191 percent increase.
As for the amount of water lost each year, Deyoe said Cunningham’s calculations did not take into consideration water that the town cannot bill for. This includes water used in situations like fire drills, emergency situations and when lines are flushed. He said there are leaks, but at an 11.6 percent loss, the leaks are reasonably low compared to other communities. Guilderland and Colonie each have a 16 percent loss, and the City of Troy is at 26 percent.
Cunningham said in a later interview that he still feels the town’s math is wrong and the cost of water from Clapper Road is trending much higher than from Albany. He was also upset that a true estimate has yet to be given for the cost of upgrades to the facility.
The town has previously estimated the cost of upgrades to be around $1.7 million.
“Re-negotiating the Albany Water Agreement is a necessary step for the Town to take, but we would do well to focus further out on the horizon as well as we plan for the future of our town,” Cunningham said.