This article was featured in the My Clifton Park & Halfmoon section of the Daily Gazette (September 6-12). It was written by Pete Bardunias of the Southern Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.
In early August, a large water main broke in the vicinity of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. This resulted in a boil water advisory as well as a reduced water use alert for most communities that utilized the Saratoga County system. Clifton Park, however, was different. Decades of preparation and planning enabled the Town to switch to other, uncompromised sources, thus ensuring an ample supply of clean water. In an age where redundancy and local sourcing is encouraged among other types of infrastructure, especially the electric grid, this episode provides a case study in how to get things right. For this article, Clifton Park Town Supervisor Phil Barrett and Clifton Park Water Authority Administrator Don Austin discuss how it was accomplished.
Phil Barrett is justifiably proud of the work done to develop the interwoven web that is Clifton Park’s fresh water supply. In the 1990s, the water was not as plentiful as it became in recent years. Oftentimes during summer dry spells there would be restrictions on the time of day people could water their lawns, as well as odd and even day usage depending on people’s house numbers. There was a heightened awareness of the low water table, and concerns that the Town’s wells which utilized the Colonie Channel Aquifer would dry up. Clifton Park had no other sources of water.
Upon taking office, Barrett began making changes. Interconnectivity was established with the water supplies of Halfmoon and Rexford. A new water line ran down Route 146 to make the connection with Rexford, which was buying its water from Glenville at the time. Also, during the early 2000s, plans were established to connect to the Saratoga County water supply, which also was needed for the planned developments with Luther Forest and Advanced Micro Devices (later GLOBALFOUNDRIES) . The County Board of Supervisors had created a Water Committee, chaired by Ray Callanan with Phil Barrett as Vice Chair, and their work of creating the new water system was completed in 2010. “The County Water Plant, strategic interconnections within the Town, and the ability to complete new partnerships with neighboring communities were vital to our ability to exponentially increase the amount of water available to Clifton Park,” says Barrett.
The various water projects did quite a few positive things for Clifton Park residents. First, the interconnection of multiple systems provided redundant sources for the water supply. Second, there had been a growing issue in Rexford because infrastructure needed repair but the cost was spread among only a few households, and thus was very high. With the Rexford system now part of the greater Clifton Park supply, the cost could be absorbed by the entire town and thus was considerably reduced. Finally, the concerns about the adequacy of the supply and the water quality could be addressed, as poorer-performing wells could be removed and better wells and/or incoming supplies via pipe substituted to meet the growing demand of Clifton Park residents. Over the years, Clifton Park began purchasing more water from Saratoga County due to its availability and lower prices. County water is softer than the area well water because the local aquifers run deep and are full of minerals, while the county gets its supply from reduced mineral surface water. By this decade, Clifton Park had built up a very robust system with lots of interconnectivity and supply options. However, there hadn’t yet been a test of its capabilities under stress.
That test finally came last month. When the 36 inch Saratoga line broke, it was fixed quickly (about 24 hours) but the breach in the system required an immediate boil water advisory to go out as well as a reduced water alert. It would take 2 days to test the system for bacteria and assure it was clean enough for normal use. Had Clifton Park continued to use the county water supply they would have had to issue a boil water advisory for the entire Town. Instead, valves were turned and switches thrown, and the Town was able to supply its residents good clean water from reliable, uncompromised sources. This was an excellent example of a redundant system. Austin says, “As seasonal water demand goes, this break couldn’t have happened at a worse time. It was a good test of our system.” “The County’s reverse 911 system also allowed us to alert residents and ask for reduced water consumption,” says Barrett. “We had just had an incredibly hot dry spell, and yet the water systems handled the demand perfectly. It was made possible by utilizing the strategic partnerships developed over the past 16 years.”
The lessons learned? “Develop strategic partnerships to benefit the Town and its residents wherever possible,” says Barrett. “Improving water quality allowed us to remove the lesser quality wells from the system,” says Austin, “so we have fewer water quality issues than we did back in the 1990s. There is an additional 2 million gallons in storage tanks for added security, and the lessons of the Clifton Park “water microgrid” might apply to other infrastructure like, for example, the need to supply reliable, redundant power to this growing community. But that is the subject for another article.
Clifton Park supplies Round Lake with water since the early 2000s, and the system supplies some 13,700 residences and 35,000 people with an average of 3.5 million gallons per day (rising to 6.5 million during the summer peak!) We are fortunate indeed that our Town has made diligent preparations. There is nothing glamorous about water pipes, and it likely is hard to score political points for installing them, until a major water main break happens on a 90 degree summer day and… nothing goes wrong.