Is Our Water Too Cheap?

This rain garden at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie is an example of green infrastructure in an institutional setting. The runoff from the maintenance building is directed to the rain garden where is infiltrated into the ground.

The Hudson Valley was recently referred to as “the Saudi Arabia of water,” rich in a resource that is scarce and expensive in much of the world.  The analogy, from a seminar held this fall in New Paltz,  is not a complete parallel. While life without oil would be vastly different, “Life is not possible without water,” said John Cronin, director of the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries. He was addressing a group from Leadership Dutchess earlier this month. “In the next five years, we will have more options for energy and fewer options for clean water. Beacon Institute is working to improve scientific understanding of this natural resource, so that it can be better managed,” Cronin explained.

So, is our water a steal? “The short answer is, there’s going to be a need to restructure the rates,” says Simon Gruber, a consultant for the Hudson Valley Regional Council’s green infrastructure planning project, conceived to help protect and restore watersheds in the Hudson Valley by providing outreach, training, and planning for sustainable stormwater management. Gruber is working with various stakeholders in Kingston, Poughkeepsie-Hyde Park, Pawling, Newburgh, Beacon-Fishkill, Warwick, and Yonkers to design and develop plans and make them as shovel-ready as possible. “Communities can put together, over time, rain gardens, tree plantings, permeable pavement and other green stormwater techniques,” says Gruber. When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, it dealt primarily with single source pollution such as factory discharges. Only in the last 20 years have we begun to deal with the many problems created by storm runoff, which picks up pollutants from a variety of sources and discharges it in many locations.

What does all this have to do with the price of water? To keep our aquifers and watershed reserves full of clean water, care must be taken at every point in the cycle. Many of our cities, including Newburgh and Poughkeepsie,  have CSO systems Combined Sewer Overflow meaning that storm water and household and industrial sewage all goes through the same pipes. Normally it will be treated at a sewage plant and discharged, but during heavy rain fall or snow melt, the system is designed to overflow untreated water directly into rivers and streams. Not a good solution.

The parking lot at this public educational center, located at the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries on Denning's Point,minimizes stormwater runoff from parking areas by encouraging infiltration. Concrete paving stones are set in the ground to provide structure in order to sufficiently support the weight of cars parked in the area, but still allow water to infiltrate into the ground in the spaces between.

Add the fact that even cities with separate systems, like Beacon, suffer from aging infrastructure that overflows raw sewage during peak events, and that global climate change is likely to increase heavy rainfall events in our area, and the extent of the problem becomes clearer. Kingston recently had a public hearing regarding its CSO system, and will be working on plans to address the problems. New York City is spending billions to address its CSO. Philadelphia is one of the leaders in green infrastructure solutions.

Part of the problem is that we have not been paying for the true cost of water and sewer services. “People are used to having really cheap water and sewer,” says Gruber. “What’s happening is deferred maintenance.”

What is being done? Storm water permits are now required for all new development where at least one acre of land will be disturbed. Last year, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) came out with a Stormwater Design Manual with official standards. Gruber says that there are  problems with the document, and engineers are questioning some of the requirements. Unfortunately, the DEC has been decimated in the last few years by budget cuts. The hydrofracking issue, says Gruber, is also problematic, in that it is sucking up most of the limited DEC resources at the moment.

What can you do? Join the project team. All are welcome, including homeowners, planning boards, gardening clubs, scouting groups, business leaders, developers, landscapers, builders, environmental committees, and interested citizens. Team members will identify local priorities and access sites where green infrastructure projects can be planned. Guided by the outreach team, volunteers will participate in developing conceptual plans for at least ten promising sites in each place and implementing broader outreach in the community.

The Hudson Valley Green will continue to report on these important issues, and will be following the progress of the seven Hudson Valley communities participating in the stormwater green infrastructure project. Further resources:






Simon Gruber, Hudson Valley Regional Council



Beacon (Fishkill Creek Watershed)
Karla Raimundi, Esq., Hudson River Sloop Clearwater (845) 265-8080 x 7159
Poughkeepsie and Hyde Park (Fall Kill Creek Watershed)
Jen Rubbo, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater (845) 265-8080 x 7114
Kingston (Rondout Creek Watershed)
Victor-Pierre Melendez, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater (845) 265-8080 x 7144
Yonkers (Saw Mill River Watershed)
Marcy Denker, Hudson River Watershed Alliance
Town & Village of Pawling (Croton River Watershed)
Emily Svenson, Hudson River Watershed Alliance
Newburgh (Quassaic Creek Watershed) and Town & Village of Warwick & Village of Greenwood Lake (Wallkill River & Greenwood Lake Watersheds)
Simon Gruber, Hudson Valley Regional Council (845) 534-5622

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