Water affordability concerns addressed in the city of Buffalo

Feb 13, 2019

Lake Erie is a natural source of fresh drinking water for thousands in Western the New York region.  Even though it’s readily available for consumption sometimes hundreds of local residents find themselves going without. Many are faced with shutoff notices, because of troubles with managing the cost of water.

Stephen Halpern is with the Buffalo Law Center. Many of his days are spent working with clients throughout the city who are either having trouble paying their water bills or have had their water shut off entirely.   

“In the middle of a Buffalo renaissance, this issue needs to be addressed and should have been addressed, quite frankly, a long time ago," he said.

Western New York has been the recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for water quality improvement projects, habitat restoration, and increased access to the water for recreation. But, Halpern says, what about water affordability?

“It’s wonderful to have all the development that we have on our waterfront,” he said. “It’s wonderful to see people enjoying the water, that’s been a great step forward for this community. But we are not talking about recreation. We’re talking about bathing, we’re talking about a necessity of life. And, to not have that issue addressed, in the context of where we live, and what we’re experiencing in our community, in the sense of the upswing in our local economy, it seems to me is very dispiriting and most unfortunate.”

Oluwole A. McFoy is the General Manager for the Buffalo Sewer Authority, he’s also the chairman of the Buffalo Water Board. He says, on average water is shut off to about 200 occupied homes every month.  

“We’re averaging 200 shutoffs a months, but we’re also turning back on those same 200 within 2 days," he said.  "So, we really want to break that cycle of all the individuals going through that."

He says his department has been working on a solution to help the city’s most vulnerable residents.  

Last month his department kicked off a new initiative focused on water affordability. It’s called the Residential Affordable Water Program. McFoy says it operates based on income and is similar to the HEAP program.

McFoy says his department has been working with the US Water Alliance to address the issue collaboratively with other local agencies – like PUSH Buffalo.  

Rahwa Ghirmatzion is the Deputy Director, PUSH Buffalo. She says there are many factors that come into play, when local families find that their water bills are creeping up higher and higher every month.

“Sometimes you have things like leaky faucets and those end up driving up your bill very, very high," she said.

Ghirmatzion says Buffalo’s old housing stock, coupled with things like our cold climate contribute to generally higher energy costs for local households, which sometimes leaves less funds available for their water bills.