The same tunnel that delivers water to millions of faucets in New York City is blamed for leaving homes in this upstate town in soggy misery.
Residents say the leaky aqueduct running below their neighborhood creates flooding in their basements during even routine rain storms. They are plagued with heaving floors, moldy walls and sinkholes in their lawns.
"There's just nowhere for the water to go on the property. It's like a big wet sponge," said Mike Rosselli, who raised his family in this semi-rural neighborhood 80 miles north of New York City.
"We're used to saying, `Oh, nice spring rain!' Now it's `Oh crap.' ... It's a terrible way to live."
After years of complaints and lobbying by residents, the government is preparing to spend more than $7 million to purchase homes from willing sellers in Wawarsing. But even as 67 homeowners have applied for the buyout, some residents fear the offers won't be large enough to cover the cost of their homes and their out-of-pocket losses.
"I'm glad to see them finally stepping up and doing something, but for me it's a little late," said 65-year-old Andrea Smith as she walked around her trailer to point out a sinkhole on her lawn. She and her husband applied for a buyout as a way of telling government officials they have a problem, but she says they won't sell.
Complaints of flooded basements and squishy lawns have come from residents of this town at least since the 1990s. Residents blamed New York City's Delaware Aqueduct, which runs more than 650 feet underground here as it delivers water from the nearby Rondout Reservoir.
The tunnel is an 85-mile-long engineering marvel that runs under the Hudson River, serving 8 million people in New York City and a million more elsewhere. In service since World War II, it handles about half the water for the city, more than 500 million gallons a day from four upstate reservoirs.
And it's old.
The tunnel has almost 500 feet of cracks along a stretch through Wawarsing and another 5,000 feet of cracks close to where it crosses under the river at Roseton, the city's Department of Environmental Protection says. The aqueduct loses 10 million to 30 million gallons a day. The city plans to spend $1.2 billion to fix the tunnel by 2021.
While the larger leak is in Roseton, the cracks under Wawarsing run near a residential area.
Rosselli said that when it rains, water perks up from his basement floor like it's from a coffee pot. He can hear his house creak at night. Smith and her husband replaced the original trailer on their lot because of mold problems. She bleaches her home regularly. George Eck says his sump pump runs even on dry days. Julianne Lennon's walls are cracked from the heaving. She and her husband have to use multiple sump pumps to get rid of thousands of gallons of water when the rain comes heavy like during Tropical Storm Irene and Lee.
Lennon is one of the most active residents on the issue here. Like many of her neighbors, she has campaign-style signs reading "Pump This!" and "Got Mold?" on her front yard. She also has piles of documents from the DEP that she says show the agency knew about the problem for many years.
"This is something they've always know about," she said. "It has been such a long road getting them to admit these things."
New York City has spent more than $640,000 in the past several years for the likes of gas-powered sump pumps and ultraviolet systems in homes to protect from E. coli contamination. In what many see as a breakthrough, DEP Commissioner Cas Holloway came here in summer 2010 and told residents the agency was aware that the leak was affecting certain homes and that New York City was prepared to compensate people with problems.
This year, state lawmakers approved legislation that commits available flood remediation money expected to total about $3.7 million to purchase problem properties in Wawarsing. Homes have to be assessed less than $250,000 and there is a sliding scale for income eligibility. The bought-out homes would be razed and the land will not be built on again.
The DEP would match the state money under a pending deal that would bring buyout funds to about $7.4 million. The DEP money would not have income and assessed value thresholds like the state pot of money. It would include a "premium" of 10 percent over assessed values with the stipulation that seller agrees never to sue the city over the flooding issue .
"This is a way we hope to offer an opportunity for people who would like to move their homes to be able to be compensated appropriately and also receive additional funding to help with the move or the purchase of their next home," said DEP spokesman Farrell Sklerov. "It's an optional program."
Ulster County officials who administer the program say they are trying to move ahead as quickly as possible to help the homeowners.
There's no guarantee that there will be enough money for every applicant or that the eventual offers will be acceptable to those chosen.
Lennon and others say the assessed value of a home in a depressed market will not cover the costs of moving into another house or the thousands of dollars spent over the years replacing furnaces, dryers, flooring and electricity to run sump pumps for days at a time.
Her neighbor David Sickles said he bought his house for $134,000 in 2008 before the market dipped and still owes about $120,000. In addition, he spent around $30,000 spent on the roof, driveway and other capital projects. He doubts that a buyout offer would make economic sense.
"I put in an application still," he said. "I can almost guarantee that I'm not going to take it."
For those who don't want to take the buyout, another option is to wait for the tunnel to be repaired.
The city will start work in 2013 on the three-mile tunnel project under the Hudson River to bypass the leaky point in Roseton. The aqueduct will be shut down just before the bypass tunnel is connected to the aqueduct, allowing crews to grout the cracks in Wawarsing. The city will make up for the aqueduct's loss by beefing up water capacity elsewhere in the system through pumping station upgrades and completion of a filtration plant in the Bronx.
The aqueduct is expected to close temporarily in 2020.
That's not soon enough for Rosselli and his wife. After an especially wet year punctuated by Irene and Lee, they are open to an offer.
"There's no way we're going to go through this for 10 more years," he said.