For the past two summers, New York American Water customers on the north and south shores have been incensed by their rapidly rising water bills. On Aug. 14, a report by the Farmingdale-based advocacy group Citizens Campaign for the Environment confirmed what they already knew: NYAW customers typically pay more for their water than those who get it from publicly owned utilities.
But the report, which ranked the average cost of home and business owners’ water bills across the Island, revealed something else, equally troubling: a confusing constellation of standards by which water use is measured by the many utilities — 48, to be exact — that supply us with this vital resource, and in many cases, an inscrutable system of determining its cost.
Each problem, a byproduct of the Island’s — primarily Nassau County’s — patchwork incorporation, warrants drastic action, and we call on state lawmakers to consider the one solution that is rarely discussed: Long Island’s water needs to be managed by a single, publicly owned and funded water authority.
All water on the Island comes from the same source, so it would make perfect sense for one agency to manage it, but that’s currently not the case. One of the core tenets of capitalism dictates that we pay more for a better product, but in our case, the product — the water — is the same. For goodness’ sake, it comes from the same place. And, arguably, it is a human right.
New York American Water is not solely to blame. As a private company, its chief responsibility, above most others, is to ensure profits for its shareholders, and that’s only natural. At some point in the Island’s history, various municipalities became desperate for money, unwilling or unable to bear the responsibility of managing a water utility, and sold their water assets to private interests. It was a classic example of short-term gain in exchange for long-term pain, and now residents and business owners are paying the price, literally.
And because our local municipalities have shown themselves to be unwilling to help fix the mess they helped create, it falls on the state to intervene.
Creating a single water district for the Island wouldn’t just reduce our water bills, but would also unify the standards by which we are charged for a finite resource, so we would become better equipped to protect it. Part of the issue highlighted by the Citizens Campaign report is a lack of standards by which water is measured, and many bills lack a way for customers to compare their water use with previous months and years. That, in turn, makes it harder for people to track their use and try to conserve. Additionally, it poses an obstacle to state-mandated water conservation efforts. One such effort, starting in 2017, led to much finger-pointing as conservation rate structures took effect, leading to sharp increases in New York American Water bills.
That issue will be at least partially addressed next January, when a state law goes into effect mandating that water use be measured in gallons, and that bills show water-use comparisons on a month-by-month and year-by-year basis.
But because NYAW is a private company, talk and condemnation of conservation rates obscured much of the story. On the South Shore, infrastructure improvements and maintenance service fees acted as a cost multiplier for customers, and on the North Shore, a property-tax assessment snafu on NYAW’s facilities led to the most drastic water bill hike on the Island, with customers paying on average more than $1,100 a year for water, according to the Citizens Campaign report.
A state takeover would be a massively expensive undertaking, but it’s been done before. In 1998, the state-run Long Island Power Authority purchased the Long Island Lighting Co. for $7.3 billion. Some of that debt is still on the books, but in the end, the takeover led to a system of electricity distribution that is accountable to constituents and less costly than it otherwise would have been.
Albany has been bold since the Democratic takeover of the Capitol in 2018, passing laws that have been long overdue. It’s time for lawmakers to get bolder and act to protect not only our water, but also our wallets.