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

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In this final chapter, we set forth eight recommendations that could rescue the Kensico and West Branch watersheds and help prevent the single most immediate threat to long-term filtration avoidance for the city's Catskill and Delaware system water supplies.

  1. City officials should undertake a strategic shift in their management of the Kensico and West Branch watersheds, emphasizing pollution prevention rather than pollution control. As part of this coordinated strategy, in addition to the specific recommendations set forth below, it may be necessary to modify the 1997 watershed regulations to treat Kensico and West Branch as special high priority resources and review proposed development projects in these two basins under much higher standards. The city must also enhance Kensico and West Branch data collection (e.g., recent DEP reports are still relying on 12-year old land use data ). To help advance these efforts, DEP should designate a single person to coordinate all aspects of its Kensico program, facilitating communication and teamwork among the agency's scientists, engineers and legal staff. A second coordinator should be appointed to perform the same function for the West Branch watershed.

  2. New York City should rapidly intensify its efforts to purchase land and conservation easements in the Kensico and West Branch watersheds. While, admittedly, land in the Kensico watershed is expensive, preserving the remaining available Kensico lands from further development must be an urgent city and state priority. Moreover, some portions of the Kensico watershed could be protected at lower cost than outright purchase through acquisition of conservation easements. This would be a useful strategy for safeguarding private country clubs and large corporate properties from future or additional development. DEP should also use its full powers and bully pulpit to channel development outside of this small watershed and apply the strictest possible scrutiny to development projects already being planned within the Kensico basin. In the West Branch watershed, the city's intensified protection strategy should focus primarily on comprehensive land acquisition, with the goal of buying essentially all developable parcels five acres or larger (a goal previously stated by DEP in the early 1990's).

  3. New York State should cease using public funds for roadway expansions or corporate subsidies that facilitate Kensico or West Branch watershed development. In recent years, rather than help New York City safeguard its water supply, some state policies have actually had the reverse effect. To provide Kensico and West Branch the protection they warrant and to help achieve long term filtration avoidance, the state should prohibit the use of state funds for any future proposed roadway expansions in the Kensico and West Branch watersheds, and should make this policy known to all potential developers. The state should also significantly alter, if not abandon, its proposed expansion of Routes 120/22 along Kensico's eastern edge. And, the state should refrain from providing tax relief or any other incentives to businesses considering locating or expanding in the Kensico or West Branch basins and instead use its financial clout to encourage development outside of the Kensico and West Branch watersheds.

  4. New York State should act to protect the remaining wetlands in the Kensico and West Branch watersheds. Wetlands are land areas that are covered permanently, periodically or occasionally by water, and which serve a vital function as natural filters of pollution. Under New York State regulations, a wetland is defined as an area, mapped by the State Department of Environmental Conservation ("DEC"), which is at least 12.4 acres in size or has been designated as a wetland of "unusual local importance" by the DEC commissioner.[55] These larger wetlands, and the smaller than 12.4 acre wetlands designated by the commissioner, enjoy special protection. For example, the construction of an impervious surface and the placement of a septic field are prohibited within 100 feet of these state-recognized wetlands.[56] In the early 1990's, DEP began mapping all wetlands over one acre in the New York City watershed. But these critical parcels remain largely unprotected because the watershed regulations described above apply only to those wetlands that fall under the state DEC definition. Many other states, in contrast, do not have such restrictive definitions of a wetland.[57] Since the Kensico and West Branch wetlands, regardless of their size, play an essential role in helping to capture and purify runoff, the state should designate all of the remaining wetlands over one acre in the Kensico and West Branch watersheds as having "unusual local importance."[58] If the state does not promptly move to do this, DEP should petition the state to act.

  5. State and city officials should act without further delay to remove the threat of pesticides from the Kensico and West Branch watersheds. Under the previous administration, New York City sought authority from New York State to, among other things, review proposed commercial applications of pesticides in the city's watershed basins. But the 1997 watershed rules contain no provisions even to document, let alone limit, pesticide applications. If the state continues to dawdle on this issue, New York City should proceed on its own to investigate and control commercial pesticide applications in the watershed.

  6. Westchester County should play an active and vocal role in the protection of its drinking water supply. Westchester has a direct stake in the protection of the New York City water supply. (Indeed, approximately 90% of Westchester residents receive water from the NYC supply, with more than 70% drawing water from the Kensico Reservoir.) County Executive Andrew Spano has indicated an appreciation of the importance of watershed issues and an intention to act responsibly. Among the important actions the County Executive and the Westchester County Legislature should take would be to implement programs that will prevent sewage from entering the Kensico watershed. First, the County Executive should institute a program for regular sewer inspection and maintenance in the Kensico basin and insure that septic systems in sewered areas of the Kensico basin are retired, with the properties connecting instead to the sewer system. (Some of these measures are already required by the Westchester County Sanitary Code and the EPA Filtration Avoidance Determination).

    In addition, the Westchester County Development Agency, whose actions helped attract the Swiss Re Headquarters to the Route 120 corridor, should reverse course and initiate a policy of discouraging further development in the Kensico watershed. Financial incentives should only be offered to businesses locating or expanding outside of this critical basin.

    Finally, Westchester County officials should expedite the diversion of stormwater runoff from the Westchester County Airport, and expand the program to ensure that all potentially contaminated airport runoff is diverted away from the Kensico Reservoir. (Under the current plan, over 160 acres of airport property will continue to drain into the Kensico even after the on-going, partial diversion project is completed.59[]) Finally, with the airport handling over a million commercial passengers and 17,500 corporate flights a year, precipitating up to 40 spills of deicing fluid, oil or fuel annually,[60] the county should update its 12 year old airport Master Plan so that, at a minimum, no further expansion of the airport or ancillary facilities occurs in the Kensico watershed.

  7. IBM, MBIA, Swiss Re, and Travelers, all of which have built major new headquarters facilities on sensitive watershed lands, should adopt and implement bold new corporate responsibility programs to turn their institutions into watershed stewards. All four of these major corporations have built or are expanding campus headquarters ominously close to the reservoir, creating impervious surfaces on sensitive watershed lands and bringing thousands of additional motor vehicles into the area every day.[61] As a result, these corporations have a special obligation to prevent further degradation of the Kensico watershed. First, these corporations, which benefit from being located in a pastoral watershed setting, should help to create a multimillion dollar fund for the purchase of sensitive Kensico watershed lands and easements. This fund should be used to supplement available city money to purchase and protect Kensico watershed parcels. Second, these corporations should provide a model for how to take care of their lands in a way that maximizes protection of the city's water supply. To this end, they should negotiate easements with the city to prevent further development on lands they now own. They should also design and then implement a program for their properties that minimizes manicured lawns, parking lots and roads, and maximizes the amount of land left in a natural state to reduce runoff and the need for pesticide or fertilizer applications. Finally, all corporations along Route 120 should take an active role in designing ride-sharing and transit options for their employees, including incentives for employee participation.

  8. Putnam County should recognize the special importance of protecting the West Branch watershed (as well as the connected Boyd Corners watershed) in safeguarding the Catskill and Delaware water supplies, and should act as a good neighbor and land steward in protecting these vital water resources. With such concerns in mind, County Executive Robert Bondi has noted that there are 30,000 Putnam residents who drink New York City water and that the county is likely to rely increasingly on water from the city supply in future years. To his credit, the County Executive has acknowledged "Putnam County's duty and obligation to protect New York City water for future generations." As a first step in an intensified effort to help safeguard this resource, Putnam County should recognize the special importance of the West Branch and Boyd Corners reservoirs and should adopt a countywide plan that channels new development into areas where it makes sense to concentrate growth and that protects sensitive watersheds, most notably those surrounding the West Branch and Boyd Corners reservoirs, from further development.


55. 6 NYCRR 663.2(p).

56. New York City Watershed Regulations Sections 18-38(a)(5) and 18-39(a)(1).

57. See, for example, the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act, which has no minimum size requirement in its definition of a wetland. M.G.L. c. 131 40 (8).

58. This was one of the seven recommendations of the NY Academy of Medicine in their "Statement on Preserving New York City's Drinking Water Quality and Public Health," March 1991.

59. 59. Personal Communication with Peter Scherrer, Assistant Airport Manager, Westchester County Airport, January 20, 1999.

60. "Airport Traffic," The New York Times, Westchester Section, February 2, 1998, and Gannett Suburban Newspapers, August 31, 1998.

61. NYSDOT, "Routes 120 and 22/Exits 2 and 3 on I-684 DEIS," Vol. 1, p. ES-2.

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