County enlists neighbors for unified water system
Genesee County, N.Y., was a community divided by multiple water systems and sources, many of which battled problems with water quality and quantity. But that began to change in 1998, when the county spearheaded efforts to create a countywide water system, ultimately garnering the cooperation of one city, 13 towns, six villages, two water authorities and three neighboring counties.
Genesee County is home to approximately 60,000 residents, and its population is expected to grow 12 percent over the next 20 years. Prior to implementation of the countywide water system, several of the county’s municipalities were facing water-related problems that, even without the anticipated growth, needed attention.
For example, Oakfield’s municipal well supply was situated close to a Superfund site, presenting health concerns to residents and resulting in several water-related health warnings. In Darien, home to a Six Flags theme park, water was imported daily to accommodate demands at the park and nearby hotel. And in Batavia, the city’s 75-year-old water plant needed replacement or, at the very least, major process renovations.
In its 1997 Comprehensive Plan, the Genesee County Legislature identified high-quality public water as its “most significant utility need.” The plan’s goal was to “ensure that safe, efficient and affordable utilities are maintained and/or extended in Genesee County to support appropriate land uses, meet basic needs of residents and enhance economic growth.”
The county legislature created the Genesee County Water Resources Agency (GCWRA) — consisting of local business owners, farmers, local government officials and residents — to identify strategies for meeting that goal. Considering a variety of alternatives, including the option of having each municipality address its own problems individually, the group chose to develop a unified system. Its strategy involved the temporary use (five to 10 years) of local water treatment plants in Genesee County, as well as extensions of the water supply systems in Monroe and Erie counties.
Assisted by Rochester, N.Y.-based Clark Patterson Associates, Genesee County and the Monroe County Water Authority (MCWA) advanced stakeholder cooperation by meeting one-on-one with concerned land and business owners, and by conducting public hearings. “We met with so many people at every level, sharing the same information and ideas,” says John Stanwix, MCWA’s executive director. “Consistent communication was the key to success.”
Each town and village had four options to consider:
It could continue to use its current water system and allow the county to connect to that system;
It could purchase water wholesale from MCWA yet retain responsibility for its own distribution and administration;
It could lease its water system to MCWA and allow residents to become MCWA customers; or
It could opt out of the unified system altogether.
Obtaining full stakeholder participation took more than two years, and, in the end, the group had finalized more than 25 inter-municipal agreements. Additionally, MCWA had obtained approval from the state legislature to extend, own and operate its system in Genesee County.
Phase I of the Genesee County Water Program got under way in Spring 2001 with construction of approximately 35 miles of water main in Genesee, Monroe and Erie counties. Three pump stations and three water storage tanks also were added throughout the system.
As a result of the initial phase, the unified system supplies water to 11 jurisdictions — and supplemental service to two more jurisdictions — in Genesee County. It also provides water to two towns in Monroe County; a town in Erie County; and portions of a town in Livingston County. (Connections between a Genesee County village and the Six Flags theme park will accommodate new water demands resulting from park expansions.)
Phase I cost approximately $30 million and was financed primarily by MCWA. (The agency’s debt will be paid, in part, by a $0.60 per 1,000 gallons surcharge on county residents’ water bills.) Genesee County has contributed approximately $6 million in state and federal grants.
Phase II of the project, which depends on availability of funding, will add 30 miles of water main in Genesee and Monroe counties to allow extensions to two more towns and two more villages in Genesee County. Estimated to cost up to $25 million, the second phase also will provide new supplies to Batavia and Le Roy from MCWA.
With the countywide water system, Genesee County is meeting its goal of providing high-quality drinking water to its residents and major water users. The system is providing long-term benefits as well. For example, Batavia, which is at the heart of the system, will save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually through a sales tax agreement, which it made with the county as part of the program. Additionally, towns and villages will have the resources needed for managed growth, and, with adequate water supply, the county is positioned for increased economic development.