Genesee County legislators on Wednesday afternoon – in the clearest of terms – asked Congressman Chris Jacobs for his help in finding federal money to assist the municipality with its multimillion dollar Countywide Water Project.
Legislature Chair Rochelle Stein set the tone for the roundtable discussion at the Old County Courthouse by emphasizing that residents’ quality of life and the county’s economic development hinge upon the amount of water flowing into the City of Batavia and Genesee’s towns and villages.
The purpose of the meeting – it lasted about 50 minutes -- was to educate Jacobs on the details of the water project, which is nearing the end of Phase 2 of a planned four-phase initiative.
County Engineer Tim Hens said the cost of the project is staggering -- $20 million for Phase 1, $23 million for Phase 2 (which will bring in another 2.4 million gallons per day), $85 million for Phase 3 (another 6 million gallons per day and the elimination of the aging City water plant) and an estimated $50 to $60 million for Phase 4.
“We’re at a point now where we can’t manage it on our own,” said Stein, asking Jacobs and his staff to explore all options through the network of federal agencies.
County Manager Matt Landers said the county “is on the same trajectory with the same issues and the same concerns,” referring to having to impose water restrictions at peak summer times and delays in completing Phase 2 due to COVID-19.
He said the bulk of the water generated by Phase 2 is “largely spoken of for other developments, expected growth and other water districts (including the Town of Bethany) coming on line.”
“So, we’re going to be chasing our tail; we’re in the same position for the next five or six years until Phase 3 comes on board,” he said, adding that Phase 3 is at the design stage. “Phase 3 brings us extra water, but it really doesn’t put us in position for the next generation …”
Landers said the county has taken steps to attract funding – enlisting a lobbying firm, hiring grant writers and using its resources (such as $8 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding) – but is in need of outside help to avoid placing the burden on taxpayers.
He said that breaking Phase 3 into a couple dozen smaller projects, such as individual pump stations or towers at $2.5 million, for example, could be the best way to present it to funding entities such as the United States Department of Agriculture or the Environmental Protection Agency.
Hens said the county estimated, in 1998, a 40-year forecast of needing 10 million gallons per day, but it already has hit that amount. Now, they’re looking at 21.5 million gallons a day for Phase 3 and Phase 4.
“The growth of the water system has far exceeded our expectations for not only residential demand,” Hens said, but also for dairy farmers, who comprise the county’s largest industry. “Cows drink probably eight times what the average human consumes in a day, so the usage on farms is pretty high.”
He also said the water project has fostered the expansion of the county’s food processing industry, mentioning HP Hood (that uses a million gallons per day) and O-At-Ka Milk Products.
Stein, noting that the Tonawanda Creek is an “environmentally-threatened water source,” wondered out loud whether there is an environmental bill coming out where funding for public water could be allocated. She also asked if some sort of “social justice” funding was available in light of the amount of low- to moderate-income citizens in the city and county.
While Genesee County is proud of its dairy and food processing industry, Stein said it lost an opportunity to attract the Great Lakes cheese plant in Le Roy because of limited access to water.
“We don’t want to be in that situation forever,” she said. “… seeking those federal dollars is really important to us. Our conversation is meaningful … and you’re going to talk about that when you’re in Washington.”
Jacobs said he and his staff would “scour departments within Washington, D.C., to find good fits for opportunities for this very important project.”
He said that water and broadband (internet) are “common needs” throughout his Congressional district that he continues to advocate for. The Republican said that as a member of the House Agriculture Committee he is learning about the problems facing rural communities and “hopefully, we’ll be in the majority next year and I will be in a better position to advocate as well.”
Derek Judd, who serves as Jacobs’ legislative director, said by video that low cost, long-term financing for water infrastructure is in the works but advised legislators to be prepared for a long timeline when it comes to Congress-supported community project funding projects.
Landers said Jacobs “should be proud” of the fact that Genesee County has developed a regional water supply in conjunction with the Monroe and Erie county water authorities and (with Niagara County in the future at the WNY STAMP site in the Town of Alabama).
Both Stein and Landers pointed out the “partnership” the county has with the city, towns and villages, and hoped that Jacobs would communicate their message to his colleagues at the nation’s capital.