Rensselaerville water committee on solid ground as it works toward new system

Enterprise file photo — Mike Koff

A single cloud is reflected in the placid water of Lake Myosotis, which serves as a public water source for the hamlet of Rensselaerville.

RENSSELAERVILLE — When the Rensselaerville Water and Sewer Advisory Committee Chairman Ed Csukas moved to Rensselaerville three years ago, municipal water was brought up as a perk, and it hadn’t occurred to him to ask about its quality. 

The Rensselaerville water district, which is used by residents of the Rensselaerville hamlet, draws from nearby Lake Myosotis and treats that water with a facility that dates back to the 1940s, Csukas told The Enterprise this week. As previously reported, recent annual water-quality reports published by the town reveal high levels of TTHMs and HAA5, sometimes in violation of federal limits. 

Those chemicals are a potentially harmful byproduct of the process that makes the water — which, because it originates as surface water, has more exposure to contaminants than water sourced from the ground — safe to drink. 

And as the federal Environmental Protection Agency conducts more research and makes new discoveries, it adds additional testing requirements and changes the contaminant thresholds for systems like Rensselaerville’s, Csukas said this week, making it more likely that the water quality will fall outside the bounds of what is allowable. 

Already, Csukas said, “We come closer to the line more often than anyone would like to hear.”

Last week, amid its larger efforts to obtain design plans and funding for an updated water system, the water and sewer committee held a public outreach meeting at Conkling Hall, to get the community, which Csukas said contains a relatively large number of newer residents who like him may not have dwelled much on infrastructure, up to speed. 

“We felt that there’s a good number of folks here that need to understand the water system and where the water comes from,” he said. 

The committee has done extensive research in the past few months on the history of the system and any of the analyses that had been performed since its conception.

They also looked into whether there were other sources of water that would be better than Lake Myosotis, which is owned by the Huyck Preserve and is available to the town through a 40-year agreement signed in 1993, Csukas said. 

“Maybe using a hybrid system is a better idea — to use the lake and one other source so that you have a backup … instead of a single point of failure,” he said.



But what stands in the way of any solution right now is funding.

Fortunately for the town, it’s a question with an answer, given that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has injected $550 billion of federal money into infrastructure projects like this one. Money can also come from New York State programs dedicated to clean water, such as the state’s recent Environmental Bond Act, which added to the $500 million in clean-water funding in the state budget. 

“The proper way to do this is to get an engineering report, or to hire an engineer, which means going through the request-for-proposal process in order for us to select a qualified engineer that can actually do the analysis and make their recommendation on what they think we should do as a … shovel-ready project,” Csukas said.

Once that’s done, the town can get in line for public funding, he said, adding that the goal at this point is to reach that point by next June. 

Although this process was outlined in meetings with various public agencies, Csukas acknowledged that, “These are just our assumptions. We don’t necessarily have the expertise to know exactly … what those time frames are.”

While the agreement between the town and the Huyck Preserve leaves the town solely responsible for maintaining its own water system, Csukas said that the two entities are working together to solve the problem. 

“We’ve met with them a couple of times over the past few months and have agreed to work together to accomplish the things we need to,” he said.


Dam renovation

One of those is renovating the dam on Lake Myosotis, which, like others in the area, has fallen out of compliance with governmental guidelines for high-hazard dams. A high-hazard dam is one that, were it to fail, would result in substantial property damage and potentially loss of life. 

“They’re working to get the dam upgraded to comply with the county’s high-hazard mitigation plan,” which expires this year, Csukas said. 

He explained that the town will be part of a committee of other entities responsible for high-hazard dams to help design the new plan, and the Huyck Preserve, as a not-for-profit organization, will be able to acquire funding inaccessible to the town for renovations.



The committee is also working to replace defective fire hydrants in the hamlet, which are connected to the water system. Not only do the hydrants provide water for firefighters, Csukas explained, but they are important to the system-wide flush that clears out sediment build-up. 

“We got two replaced this year — there’s 14 hydrants in all — another two planned for this year, and then the four remaining defective ones we hope to get replaced next year so we have a fully capable fire-hydrant system,” he said.

The committee also hopes to improve the water pressure for certain residents who live at a higher elevation and rely on an aging pump for water delivery. 

“There’s a lot of connected pieces here that are all in need of an upgrade,” Csukas said.



In the meantime, he said that, despite the quality-of-life issues posed by the town’s water system, residents should feel safe using it. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to disinfection byproducts has unclear implications for human health. Studies into acute toxicity through these chemicals have suggested that they can cause various adverse effects on animals, but conclusions about chronic exposure have been elusive in both animals and humans.

Still, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has designated some of the byproducts as possible human carcinogens. 

Testing for these chemicals does not currently differentiate between the various chemicals that make up the disinfection byproducts class, with the standard instead being set for the whole class. 

“Consumption of water with HAA5 and TTHM levels somewhat above their respective MCLs [maximum contaminant levels] for limited durations, for example, while corrective actions are being taken to lower the levels, is not likely to significantly increase risks of adverse health effects for most people,” says the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

HAA5 is a group of five haloacetic acids: dibromoacetic acid, dichloroacetic acid, monobromoacetic acid, monochloroacetic acid, and trichloroacetic acid. TTHM stands for total trihalomethanes, which are a group of volatile and potentially toxic chemicals formed during water treatment with disinfectants.

Although the annual quality reports have shown high average levels of these byproducts, it doesn’t mean that the levels are consistently high, Csukas said, noting that the periods where the levels exceeded the limits were “very rare.”

For instance, because rain was scarce last year, Csukas, who runs a bed-and-breakfast inn in the town, had brown water coming out of his faucets. 

“Not that it wasn’t necessarily safe, because we do test the water every day, but it’s discolored because the filtration plant really can’t do enough to remove this discoloration from the water …,” he said. “We can’t be giving guests brown water for breakfast and that sort of thing. I don’t have a good plan for brown water coming out of the faucet yet, but I suppose putting in a home-based water filtration system would be a step one would have to take.”

In the time that Csukas has been in Rensselaerville and on the water committee, he said that there’s never been a boil-water advisory triggered by concern over the safety of the water.

“Really, what we’re looking at right now is if we don’t take advantage of the funding that’s currently available and it goes away, a small town like ours will never be able to afford an upgrade,” he said, adding that Rensselaerville’s predicament is “not unusual.”

“Perfect storm”

According to the American Bar Association, rural water systems across the country are faltering because of a “perfect storm of forces.”

“Poor regulation of agricultural waste and other pollutants, shrinking populations, and aging infrastructure all contribute to the increasing incidents of water quality violations dotting the rural landscape …,” it says. “In 2015, 9 percent of all water systems had a documented violation of water quality standards, exposing 21 million people to unhealthy drinking water. These violations were more likely to occur in rural areas, where communities often have trouble finding the funds to maintain their systems.”

Csukas said that Rensselaerville’s advantage over these other communities is the number of people who have volunteered their time and knowledge to address the issue.

But, he said, there’s “still a lot of community to communicate this topic to,” so the committee intends to hold a webinar at some point, hoping that more people will be able to tune in online to learn about it than were able to meet with the committee in person. 

“We got lots of community buy-in …,” Csukas said of last week’s public outreach meeting. “I think we got out of the meeting what we were hoping to get out of it, and no one came up with that silver bullet that no one else has thought of so far, so I think we’re on the right track.”  

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