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North Elba continues Ray Brook water project

RAY BROOK — The town of North Elba’s Ray Brook water system upgrades continue to inch forward after several unexpected setbacks.

The town has been searching for ways to supply water to two prisons in its hamlet of Ray Brook for more than a decade. Once the town builds out its water system with new wells, and provided the state agrees to authorize the town to supply the Adirondack Correctional Facility and Federal Correctional Institution with water, local officials hope the new customers could potentially boost revenue for the town by some $400,000 per year.

The main purpose of the new wells is to provide Adirondack Correctional and FCI Ray Brook with a source of groundwater that is independent of the surface-based water supply that the prisons have used in the past. The surface-based water supply has to be purified in a filtration plant, which is “very, very expensive,” according to town Supervisor Derek Doty.

By drilling two test wells near the Ray Brook golf course, the town has now located an adequate water source to supply Adirondack Correctional and FCI Ray Brook “with adequate water, should they decide to move forward with those improvements to supply them,” Doty said at a North Elba Town Council meeting on June 11.

The town has received the state’s initial payment of $258,000 to cover the total projected cost of installing the production wells — Doty described receiving the initial payment as “a breath of fresh air” — but the cost of the wells is going to be larger than originally estimated, due to the project taking longer than the expected time frame. In order to get the state to pay for the full expenses of the project, the town now has to modify the payment so that it covers the actual cost, which requires the town to go through “a process … to try to satisfy the justification for an amendment to that initial estimate,” Doty said. He does not know how long that process will take.

The well drilling was first delayed when the well driller seriously injured his hand while on the job, delaying the project by up to a year, according to Doty. That delay led to another six to eight month wait for the hydrogeologist to be available again. Along the way, several of the people in charge who were more versed in the project retired, and although their replacements were perfectly competent, according to Doty, some additional time was lost. The difficulties of the coronavirus pandemic also impacted the progress of the project.

In total, these setbacks added about $80,000 to the predicted cost.

As a Ray Brook native, Doty said he has a very personal connection to the project. He called it a “win-win” for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and the residents of the area, who will have new revenue and sustainability for the future.

“(We) have plenty of water capacity for future residential growth, even commercial growth,” Doty said. “But the overwhelming priority right now is to find new revenue in supplying the state prison and the federal prison with potable water that comes from the ground, so that they can be relieved in running a filtration plant. … This is both a way to ensure future growth in Ray Brook as well as help supply the prisons, and create new revenue.”

Tank replacement project

The town’s effort to supply the two prisons in Ray Brook is not the only water project ongoing in this hamlet.

Along with the state-funded project to provide water for the state and federal prisons, there is also a locally-funded project involving the installation of a new water storage tank on McKenzie Pond Road to supply 107 residential users in the area below where the tank is located, according to Doty.

This project will also involve a second stage, where a stretch of new waterline and a couple of fire hydrants will be installed on the Old Ray Brook Road. The town has this second phase sorted out — although Ray Brook water rates will not pay for the costs of any part of the project, Doty said the town will deal with cost overruns by waiting until they have enough funding to proceed with this phase. The second phase is only “a minor part,” according to Doty, so it isn’t as much of a concern.

He said that for the last seven or eight years, the state Department of Health had been asking the town to replace the tank, which will replace a previous tank in that location, at the top of the first hill on McKenzie Pond Road coming from Lake Placid. The plan is to connect it to the new wells along with the already-active wells, allowing for there to be a more abundant water supply for the area and to use the tank to store water as both the domestic and the state/federal prison supply.

North Elba was awarded a $2.2 million grant from the state to pay for 60% of the cost of installing the new tank, while 40% will be paid for by the town.

Because the domestic project coincided with the town’s interactions with the state about entering an agreement for the prison project, Doty said that the town took the installation of the new wells as an opportunity to increase the size of the tank from 150,000 gallons to 250,000 gallons when it was replaced. He said this enabled the town “to allow for growth in the community and to have adequate volume to supply the prisons.” He described the contrast of how much water can now be consumed daily compared to how much water was available before as about a 10 to one ratio.

“Thirty-thousand gallons a day (before) versus 300,000 gallons a day (now),” he said.

The new wells will be able to service more residents in Ray Brook if new homes are built there.

Moving forward

Now that the town has proven they have a source of water and they have had the water tested by a hydrogeologist, they are waiting for a Department of Health permit to allow them to put the water online, which they will receive after the department has reviewed the test results for a suitably high clarity level and low bacteria count. Doty says he calls the Ray Brook water “our award-winning water.” He is quite sure it is up to the Department of Health’s standards.

“We’re at a phase right now where estimates for the work schedule (have) been designed by our engineer on how to move forward on the improvements it will take to bring the water from our source to the prisons,” Doty said.

There is currently a four-inch-diameter water supply line from the wells near the golf course to the tank on McKenzie Pond Road, but Doty says that it will need to be upgraded if the town start supplying 300,000 gallons of water per day. Eight-inch-diameter pipeline will need to be laid from the wells up to state Route 86, over to the McKenzie Pond Road, and from there to state property. From state property, Doty says that the water will be pumped to an existing state reservoir system, which is also being worked on. Not only does the pipe need to be improved, but the engineers maintaining it will need to have higher-level certification and a larger pump house will be required.

The town has made a plan for how to go about these upgrades and they hope to start a bidding process with various companies to confirm an actual cost for the project before beginning construction next spring. The problem is that they can’t make real progress until they enter an agreement with the state about all the necessary upgrades for supplying the federal prison. While this agreement is anticipated, it has not actually happened yet.

Doty said that as he understands it, the federal prison, being located on state land, is supposed to be supplied water by the state, but it has not yet determined its water source. The plan is that the state will enter an agreement with the town to use the new Ray Brook wells for the prison and fund the resulting expenses.

If the prison opts to use the water as a full-time source where the prison would consistently rely on the water, Doty said the town could make as much as $400,000 per year. Even as a part-time supplier, the town still earns $100,000 per year.

Until the town can reach an agreement with the state to be the federal prison’s water supplier, the town cannot move forward with its plan.

Prison closures

As the town moves forward with its water system upgrades to service the prisons, lawmakers around the region are awaiting word from Albany on the status of local prisons.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has been authorized to close five state prisons this year as the prison population declines. A letter co-signed by Doty, St. Armand town Supervisor Davina Thurston, Harrietstown town Supervisor Jordanna Mallach and Saranac Lake village Mayor Jimmy Williams was sent to Hochul earlier this year, urging her to keep Adirondack Correctional off the chopping block.

On Monday, Doty said he still had not heard any updates. He reiterated that he doesn’t believe it would be fair if more North Country prisons were shut down.

Camp Gabriels and Moriah Shock have already been closed, Doty said.

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