Expert Forum: Securing a Sustainable Water Future for Western New York

By: Mark Lenz, Professional Engineer and Vice President, Arcadis at mark.lenz@arcadis.com

Safe, clean and reliable drinking water is something most of us take for granted. However, we have recently seen in Hoosick Falls (NY), Flint (MI) and other communities that this expectation is not always realized. In Hoosick Falls and Flint, the lack of safe drinking water was only acknowledged after vocal and consistent community activism.  We can, and must, do better!

My Arcadis colleagues and I were involved in the response to both the Hoosick Falls and Flint crises. We faced two main challenges:

  1. Diagnosing the problem and developing a technical solution, and
  2. Restoring public trust and confidence in the public water system.

The technical challenges in these two cases were very different: citizens of Flint were exposed to high levels of lead due to a disruptive change in the public water system while Hoosick Falls residents were exposed to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) from industrial activities which contaminated groundwater supplies. However, in both cases, public meetings, one-on-one conversations, and rebuilding the drinking water infrastructure were required to help restore trust.

Keys to a Sustainable Water Future

We are fortunate in Western New York to have abundant natural resources which make a sustainable water future possible. Arcadis’ recently published Sustainable Cities Water Index evaluated cities all over the world. While Buffalo was not specifically reviewed in the Index, we share many of the same qualities that allowed Toronto, Canada, to be ranked #6 in the world for water resiliency, efficiency and quality.

But there is work to be done; securing a sustainable water future will require both investment and leadership.  Estimates vary, but the needs are large:

  • $180 billion needed for Northeast U.S. drinking water utilities over the next 25 years,
  • $80 billion needed for NYS water and wastewater utilities over the next 20 years,
  • $40 billion for NYS municipal drinking water systems prior to 2030.

Fortunately, there is a push towards making these investments with $2.5 billion dedicated in the latest New York State budget.  There are also good signs at the Federal level, with $1 billion of loan financing announced in January, and in late March $100 million was dedicated for Flint.

Water Infrastructure Investment fuels Local Economic Growth 

While large investments are required to ensure safe drinking water in the future, these projects also benefit local economies. Water infrastructure investments can create a greater than 6:1 return on investment through the creation of local jobs.

Arcadis has more than 35 staff in our Buffalo office, 5,000 colleagues across the U.S. and 26,000 around the globe that work on providing solutions not only in water, but also in environment, infrastructure and buildings. Our team has been working to provide safe drinking water and clean natural waters for the Western New York community for more than 50 years and are committed to securing a sustainable water future here and across the country.

Disclaimer: The above commentary entails the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.