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Under Attack
New York's Kensico and West Branch Reservoirs Confront Intensified Development

Top of Report


The Kensico and West Branch Reservoirs in Westchester and Putnam counties are the most critical drinking water facilities in New York City's entire 19 reservoir system. These two reservoirs have strategic importance to the city's upstate watershed network that provides water to nearly nine million downstate New Yorkers -- the West Branch receives water from the four reservoirs of the Delaware system; Kensico receives water from those four Delaware system reservoirs and also from the two Catskill system reservoirs before sending all of it into the city's water distribution system (see Map 1). These two reservoirs are the funnels for 90 percent of the downstate drinking water supply. As a result, pollution entering the Kensico and West Branch could degrade not only their own waters, but high quality water from the flagship Catskill and Delaware system reservoirs as well. If New York is to stave off the multibillion dollar cost of filtering its Catskill and Delaware system supplies, safeguarding the Kensico and West Branch watersheds must become a top priority.

Today, however, these two essential reservoirs and their fragile watersheds are under attack. They are under attack not from a single major polluter or one source of contamination. Rather, the major assailant is intensified development pressure that is transforming the rural character of the Kensico and West Branch watersheds. Ill-planned corporate development, sprawling residential subdivisions, expanded roadways and other impervious surfaces close to reservoirs and their tributaries pose long term threats to the region's water supply. Indeed, as this report documents, more than 20 major development projects have recently been completed or are now in the pipeline in the Kensico and West Branch watersheds alone. This kind of development is the greatest single threat to filtration avoidance in the immediate future of the Catskill and Delaware systems.

A major finding of this report is that government officials at the city, state and county levels are not doing what is necessary to protect these two watersheds. To be sure, many staff-level employees of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection ("DEP") are working hard, under difficult conditions, to protect the upstate watersheds. In addition, the city is advancing plans for "best management practices" to control pollution already in these watersheds, and some critical lands in the West Branch watershed have recently been purchased. And admittedly, the city by itself has only limited authority to shape local land use decisions in watershed towns.

But the focus of government decision-makers seems to be on containing pollution after it has been created, instead of aggressively seeking to prevent pollution in these two small and irreplaceable watershed basins. On the whole, a high-intensity effort, involving city, state, and county officials, to rescue these vulnerable watersheds has not yet been launched. In one glaring example, not a single acre of land in the all-important Kensico Reservoir watershed has been purchased by the city, according to its most recent filtration avoidance report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA"). Since the watershed is a resource of statewide importance and because the future of the state is inextricably linked with New York City, the responsibility for protecting these watershed basins falls not just on city officials but the state as well.

There is a fundamental flaw in the approach city and state officials are taking regarding the protection of the Kensico and West Branch watersheds. These officials apparently believe that they can accommodate new development in these sensitive watersheds and still assure long-term filtration avoidance of the Catskill and Delaware systems. But there is little evidence in the public record to support their assumption. What happens if the new growth and development bring pollution impacts that cannot be mitigated? And even if some development can be accommodated, shouldn't the city and state place some limits on future growth in these two critical basins? By following their present course, however, city and state officials are risking irreplaceable resources to welcome growth in these two watersheds that could be located elsewhere in the region. These officials appear to be seeking a position that allows for both further sprawl-type development and watershed protection. But, at least in the case of the all-important Kensico and West Branch watersheds, hard choices must now be made.

Ironically, the Kensico and West Branch watersheds have not received enough attention even from the environmental community. Environmental groups, including NRDC and the Federated Conservationists of Westchester County, have rightly expressed concern at the often haphazard development spreading throughout the increasingly suburbanized Croton system watershed in Westchester and Putnam counties. Indeed, we believe that every New York City watershed system -- Catskill, Delaware and Croton -- should be fully protected through comprehensive pollution prevention programs. However, calls in recent years to prevent development throughout all watersheds in Westchester and Putnam counties have meant that pollution prevention efforts targeted to the most critical basins have not been effectively advanced. In part as a result, the West Branch and Kensico watersheds (through which 90% of the city's water travels) have, with limited exceptions, received only the same half-hearted protections as the Croton system reservoirs which the city is now legally obligated to filter.

The purpose of this report is to sound the alarm regarding the importance of safeguarding Kensico and West Branch so that effective actions are taken before it is too late. In Chapter I of this report, we summarize the importance of the Kensico Reservoir and its watershed, highlight the threats it is now facing and explain the status of existing protection efforts. In Chapter II, we provide the same information for the West Branch Reservoir. Finally, in Chapter III, we conclude with recommendations of important measures that could help safeguard these jewels of the city's water supply system for future generations.

To be sure, water leaving the West Branch and Kensico Reservoirs for the city's distribution system still meets state and federal water quality standards. But, as this report suggests, that fact is hardly grounds for complacency. City, state and county officials must address looming problems and demonstrate a sense of urgency if they hope to insure the protection of the all-important Kensico and West Branch watersheds for the 21st century. Forewarned is forearmed.

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