ITHACA, NY – 2016 has been a troubled year for Ithaca’s drinking water.

Early in the year, we learned that Enfield and Caroline Elementary schools had lead-contaminated drinking water. It was later revealed  that most of the schools in ICSD might have similar issues. Then when summer came, the area faced an unprecedented drought, which not only threatened water supplies but also contributed to many Ithacan’s finding their sinks, bathtubs and washing machines filled with discolored water.

Was 2016 a fluke, or a sign of worse things to come?

We spoke with some local experts about two important issues that will affect the future of Ithaca’s water: our infrastructure, and the climate.

Infrastructure

Last month, The Ithaca Voice talked with city environmental engineer Scott Gibson about the cause of a resurgence of the brown water issue. During the conversation, Gibson also touched on the issues that the city’s water infrastructure may face in the future… and the picture is pretty bleak.

According to Gibson, Ithaca’s water infrastructure is currently on a 350-year lifecycle replacement. That means that if the city were to start replacing its water infrastructure today, it would take 350 years to replace the entire 103-mile long system.

Aging water infrastructure carries risks such as increased likelihood of water main leaks or breaks or rusty water.

Gibson explained that the city used to be more proactive in replacing aging pipework, but budget constraints have limited their ability to do all the work they would like. The new $37 million water treatment facility, which just came online this year, has already raised people’s water bills. Trying to fund extensive pipe replacement would raise those rates further.

At the same time, every year that the city isn’t able to replace

While there are tools available, such as linings that can reinforce the pipes, Gibson says it’s preferable to replace the pipes and start fresh, ensuring the pipe will last for 50 to 100 years, rather than apply band-aid solutions.

This problem isn’t unique to Ithaca. Like Ithaca, many cities around the country have plumbing that dates back to the 1920s and 1930s, and all of them are approaching the end of their life cycles. As daunting as the task is for Ithaca and many larger cities, it may be small towns with small tax bases that have the biggest struggle ahead of them.

“It’s going to have to come down to federal grants and subsidies to help communities to deal with,” Gibson says. “Ithaca’s got 35,000 people but you get a small town like Candor, how in the world would they ever be able to afford a direct water distribution system replacement? They couldn’t do it. It would bankrupt them.”

Extreme weather ahead?

Recovering from this year’s drought may be something we can view in terms of years, rather than days or weeks. According to Professor Jake Brenner, an environmental scientist at Ithaca College, the current water issues in Tompkins stretch back before this summer’s drought.

The lack of precipitation stretches back into last winter, when we had a lower than normal snowfall. The melting of the snow is just as important to replenishing our groundwater supplies as rainfall is.

“Pulling out of this drought isn’t going to happen in a couple of weeks… you can boost surface water with a couple rainstorms, but when you’re talking about water supply which is coming from a major reservoir or groundwater wells, then you gotta be thinking two or three years out — we need good snow this year, good snow next year and a summer that’s not bone dry like this one,” Brenner says.

For better or worse, Brenner says that climate models indicate that our region will trend warmer and wetter in the coming years, as a result of climate change. The weather in any given season, however, will become more volatile.

“The only thing that’s really predictable based on the models is more unpredictability,” Brenner says. “The only thing I’d put money on is extremes, like what we’re seeing right now. We should expect more violent swings in weather patterns. Last year we saw severe thunderstorm warnings day after day, and this drought is another example of that — just in the other direction.”

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.