Drink Up! New York City Watershed Protection Plan is Approved, as State Grants Filtration Waiver through 2017

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The New York State Health Department today granted New York City’s long-pending request for a waiver from the filtration requirements of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and directed the city to implement an enhanced watershed protection program as a condition for continuing the waiver through at least 2017.

The waiver extension is the official determination that downstate water ratepayers will not have to spend more than 10 billion dollars in capital costs alone to construct massive filtration facilities to treat New York’s Catskill and Delaware system water supplies. The six giant reservoirs that make up the heart of this system provide high quality drinking water to more than 9 million New York City and Westchester County residents.

Today’s announcement is welcome news and comes not a moment too soon in view of the challenges facing the watershed and its reservoirs posed by a changing climate and other pollution threats.

NYC's six huge Catskill and Delaware system reservoirs, including the Ashokan, pictured above, and their watersheds, will receive protection from an enhanced city plan, just approved by the State Health Department. Successful implementation of watershed protection measures means that NYC water ratepayers can avoid having to spend over 10 billion dollars for massive water filtration facilities.

The Health Department action was long overdue. Nevertheless, the revision document contains several important enhancements to the comprehensive plan the city originally proposed in December 2011.

As a condition for granting a continued filtration waiver, the revised wavier requires New York City to strengthen its existing watershed protection initiative.

For example, to comply with the waiver, the city will be advancing a new upstate flood hazard mitigation program.  It is designed to address the impacts of Tropical Storms Irene and Lee on the watershed region. Among other things, this strategy commits the city to set aside 15 million dollars for the purchase from willing sellers of watershed properties located in dangerous flood zones along the rivers and streams that feed into New York City’s reservoirs.

In addition, the city will be taking additional steps to control turbidity in its Catskill reservoir system – an issue that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified as the number one long-term threat to the city’s unfiltered Catskill reservoirs. Among other things, the revised plan directs the city to convene a panel of National Academy of Sciences experts to evaluate the effectiveness of the city’s turbidity control program to date and make recommendations for additional action.

And to insure that the city’s successful Watershed Land Acquisition Program is able to continue acquiring vulnerable land parcels around our unfiltered reservoirs, the waiver directs the city to set aside an additional 50 million dollars to pay for such willing buyer-willing seller acquisitions, and for conservation easements on watershed farms and forested properties. 

Overall, this latest filtration waiver should help strengthen the ongoing upstate-downstate watershed partnership that has, since the mid-1990s, sought to safeguard water quality and support existing watershed communities. And by wisely investing tens of millions of dollars over the next four years, the DeBlasio administration will save New York City water ratepayers from having to face multi-billion dollar capital costs and gigantic water rate increases, which would be inevitable if the city were required to build massive filtration facilities for the Catskill and Delaware system reservoirs. 

If you are looking for an example of a New York program that makes strong economic and environmental sense, look no further than the city’s watershed protection initiative.

Of course,  issuing a revised watershed protection plan and a waiver is just one step. And, as always, implementation will be key.   

But today’s Health Department action outlines a sensible and logical game plan for protecting the nation’s largest municipal water supply for the next generation of New Yorkers.