Members of the Phish rock band were just about to begin their on-stage sound checks on Aug. 16, 2018, when state and local officials abruptly pulled the plug on their weekend music festival at the Watkins Glen International racetrack.
The four rock stars and roughly 40,000 fans were told to pack up and move on because the local tap water was unsafe to drink.
Torrential rainstorms had overwhelmed the long-neglected local water system, causing drinking water turbidity to spike.
The state Department of Health immediately ordered people to boil village water before drinking it or using it to brush teeth or wash dishes. State officials were obliged to extend the order for nine days at the height of the village’s booming tourist season.
The crisis triggered a November 2018 DOH report that pin-pointed numerous safety and water quality violations. Last December, a Rochester consulting group followed up with recommendations for $15.6 million in water system upgrades.
While a few of the more glaring problems have been addressed, the village is not close to deciding whether to try to tackle the entire overhaul or to prioritize the most urgent items, as funding permits.
“There is no time frame,” said Watkins Glen Mayor Luke Leyszk (right). “We’re trying to figure out what grants could be out there.”
Shawn Bray of MRB Group, which produced the December 2019 report, said that while the water system has been “working fine for the last couple of years,” it has been neglected and could use a “generational” upgrade.
“I haven’t talked with the mayor or anyone else for a few months,” Bray (left) said. “The ball was in their court.”
The DOH inspection that followed the 2018 boil-water order found aging pipes, pumps and water storage tanks. (One of the village’s two tanks, which couldn’t be filled because of a bullet hole in its side, was replaced last year.)
Inspectors also found that system operators weren’t properly measuring or recording levels of turbidity or chlorine. They have been heavily relying on chlorine to kill zebra and quagga mussels fouling the system’s intake pipe in Seneca Lake and to reduce bacteria, protozoa and other bio-contaminants in the distribution pipes.
But using chlorine as a do-all purifier creates toxic byproducts in drinking water that are regulated by the DOH. The village has struggled to meet those limits for years, and the Town of Dix — a part of the village water system — has regularly exceeded them.
The DOH even found problems with the way the chlorine is stored and dispensed. In its November 2018 report, the agency said the building (above) that houses the chlorine gas was typically unattended and lacked an alarm for leaks.
“Chlorine gas is a toxic substance, and the recent development of apartments in the adjoining building makes this a significant risk to neighboring residents,” the report said.
Both the 2018 DOH report and 2019 consultant’s report concluded that the Watkins Glen system was understaffed, although the DOH described the chief operator, Martin Pierce, as “very knowledgeable of the systems’ components.”
Pierce declined to comment.
The 2019 MRB Group report noted that both the system’s raw water intake pump station and its Steuben Street pump station were outdated and “nearing the end of their useful lives.” The intake pumps are “improperly sized, and consequently inefficient,” it added.
In 2011, the consultants said, “there was a proposed two-phase raw water station improvement project, but the plans were never implemented.”
While the chlorine alarm was installed after the DOH report, the old pumps have yet to be addressed. Replacing them tops the list upgrade projects MRB Group recommends.
The report broke down the projects into five categories, with cost estimates:
— Raw water intake and pump station. $4.555 million.
— Water treatment plant. $4.548 million.
— Steuben storage tank improvements. $277,000.
— Steuben pump station. $236,000.
— Distribution system (mostly replacing aging/undersized pipes). $5.972 million.
Mayor Leszyk said he has assigned the task of obtaining grant funding for the water system work to the Larson Design Group, a major player in the recent development of the sewage/wastewater treatment plant on the barge canal in Catharine Creek Wildlife area just east of Watkins Glen.
“They’ll find the funding sources and write the grants and use the (MRB) study we had done to see where the deficiencies are,” Mayor Leszyk said.
Larson’s Greg Cummings said two of the most promising potential funding sources are the USDA’s Rural Development program and the state’s revolving fund for environmental projects.
He said he will pursue both of those and other sources, some of which have application deadlines as soon as September.
But before the grant work can bear fruit, the village must complete the state environmental review process and formally declare that the improvements will not have a detrimental impact on the environment.
In deciding how aggressively to pursue MRB’s recommended upgrades, village officials will have to weigh the burden on local utility ratepayers.
Village water/sewer rates have already been stair-stepping higher to cover the estimated $32 million bill for the new wastewater treatment plant (under construction, below), which has replaced woefully out-of-date plants in Watkins Glen and Montour Falls.
“The new (wastewater) plant has been treating Montour Falls since last week,” Cummings said June 30. “It will start treating Watkins Glen today. We will phase out the old plant shortly.”
If the village were to complete all of the estimated $15.6 million in recommended water system upgrades, the cost to the average user (household) would be “about $82 per month,” the MRB report said.
“It’s not out of the realm of possibility to do the whole thing — depending on funding sources,” Leszyk said. “But right now there are so many unknowns (due to the coronavirus)… and budget restraints.”
In its recent budget, the state allocated $500 million for clean water infrastructure projects, winning praise from watchdogs like NYPIRG.
However, the flow of that money to communities may well be slowed or stopped by a recent budget directive.
The village has 872 residential water connections and 63 additional commercial, institutional or industrial connections. Together, they use about 157 million gallons of filtered water per year.
The Watkins Glen system also supplies the Town of Dix, with 201 users that consume 11.6 million gallons a year, and The Town of Reading, which draws 1.5 million gallons a year.
The state requires public water systems to issue annual water quality reports. Here are Watkins Glen’s for the years 2018 and 2019.
The system’s chief regulator is the DOH regional office in Hornell, which in some cases has taken a relatively relaxed approach toward requiring tests and public reporting.
For example, the village tested for PFAS chemicals in its drinking water last year only after publicity about independent tests conducted for Seneca Lake Guardian, a non-profit environmental group. The DOH stood on the sidelines.
And the agency hasn’t pressed the village to conduct more than one test a year for algal toxins in its tap water, despite the fact that cyanobacteria — commonly known as harmful algal blooms, or HABs — is a widespread and growing threat in Seneca Lake. Several other Finger Lakes water systems test tap water regularly during HABs season.
Neither did the Hornell DOH require the village to report on sodium levels in its drinking water until Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association wrote the state health commissioner to complain in 2015.
Sodium levels above 20 milligrams per liter threaten the health of certain heart patients and people with high blood pressure or kidney disease.
Seneca Lake is easily the saltiest of the Finger Lakes, and Watkins Glen’s raw water intake pipe is located between and close to two major salt plants that are each permitted to discharge millions of gallons a brine a day into the lake.
In its 2015 letter to DOH Commissioner Howard Zucker, SLPWA noted that water systems in Geneva, Waterloo, Ovid and Willard were all reporting sodium levels of more than 70mg/L, while Watkins Glen was silent. It wasn’t even testing for sodium.
Since Watkins Glen started testing and reporting on sodium in its drinking water, the level has consistently exceeded 70mg/L — more than three times the advisory level for people on very low-sodium diets.
While the other four public water system’s annual reports all include a public warning to those health-compromised people on low-sodium diets, the Watkins Glen reports include the data but omit the public warning.
Peter is a three-time Pulitzer nominated reporter covering environmental issues through his first-of-its-kind digital publication The Water Front. He’s won an array of Associated Press, UPI, and Society of Professional Journalist awards. His reporting on environmental issues continues to be featured in prominent New York publications and is available on FingerLakes1.com through an exclusive content partnership. Have a question or lead? Send it to [email protected].