Filtration Decision Near for NYC's Drinking Water Supply

New York City and State will soon release a proposed plan for safeguarding six giant West-of-Hudson River reservoirs and surrounding watershed lands from pollution and haphazard development.
Credit: DEP

Behind closed doors, New York City, State and federal officials are hammering out the details of a revised plan to safeguard New York City’s irreplaceable Catskill and Delaware water supplies, which provide drinking water to over nine million New Yorkers.

The stakes are high. 

If New York's watershed plan does not advance stringent pollution prevention efforts over the next five to ten years, water quality in the city's six giant Catskill mountain reservoirs could decline.  

That could leave city officials with no choice but to construct massive drinking water filtration facilities at a price tag of over 10 billion capital dollars, hundreds of millions of dollars in annual operating costs and large scale energy demands that would continue for decades.  

Water ratepayers in New York City and Westchester County would see large spikes in their water bills. And the incentive to head off pollution discharges before they enter our upstate reservoirs would vanish.

The new plan, which is expected to be released in draft form within days, is being prepared pursuant to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

That statute requires all municipalities with surface water supplies, like rivers or reservoirs, to filter their drinking water unless officials can demonstrate that their source waters are of high quality and that they have a comprehensive watershed protection program to minimize the potential for contamination. 

New York City is one of only five big cities in the nation that has sought to protect its drinking water quality via this pollution prevention approach, rather than by constructing and operating expensive, energy-intensive water filtration facilities.  (The others are Seattle, San Francisco, Portland (OR), and Boston.) 

The draft plan is expected to be open for public comment and hearings this summer, before modifications are made and the final plan and filtration avoidance determination are issued by the State.  

One complicating factor is the large number of stakeholders involved. 

New York City, which owns the reservoirs and manages the system, is the key participant. But reviewing the city's watershed plan are two state agencies – the NYS Health Department, which has authority to approve a filtration avoidance plan or order the city to construct filtration facilities and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, which has specialized expertise in the mechanics of protecting watershed lands and the streams and rivers that flow into city reservoirs.  

Also involved is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It has ultimate oversight jurisdiction under the Safe Drinking Water Act.  

Then there's the watershed community where the reservoirs are located. This constituency is represented by town officials from the Catskill region, the Coalition of Watershed Towns, and quasi-governmental groups like the Catskill Watershed Corporation and the Watershed Agricultural Council.  

Several environmental organizations, including NRDC, Riverkeeper and the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, have also been engaged -- watchdogging New York's watershed program for years.  

These stakeholders often work together. But they have had differing interests at times. And, despite having created a partnership in the 1990's under then Governor George Pataki, tensions sometimes flare.   

New York City has been implementing watershed protection measures and securing filtration waivers since the 1990's.  But this is no time for complacency. 

All stakeholders and all New Yorkers need to remember this:  if New York's watershed protection efforts falter, everyone loses.

The Pepacton Reservoir is one of six giant NYC reservoirs. A revised watershed protection plan for them will be proposed shortly; this is no time for public complacency.
Credit: Eric A. Goldstein

Here are six things to look for in the forthcoming draft filtration avoidance determination:

1. A strong commitment to continued watershed land acquisition. Preserving forested lands that surround unfiltered reservoirs is the primary line of defense for drinking water protection. New York City has been implementing a successful, willing buyer-willing seller Land Acquisition Program for two decades. The new filtration determination should direct the continuation of this cornerstone initiative at least through 2025 -- with a tight focus on lands of highest water quality protection value, a segregated funding pot, and an expanded emphasis on conservation easements and the two related programs outlined immediately below.

2. An enhanced focus on protection of watershed stream corridors. A recent NYC initiative, in partnership with the Catskill Center, is designed to preserve fragile buffer lands that parallel the streams draining into city reservoirs. Acquiring these buffer strips and planting trees along them stabilizes soil, prevents erosion and enhances stream water quality as the buffer lands serve as natural filters. The new filtration determination should require expansion of this sensible program throughout the Catskill/Delaware watershed.

3. Accelerated buyouts of existing homes located in watershed floodplains. In 2011, Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Lee reminded Catskill residents and watershed officials of the danger of living in homes located alongside streams and rivers that are subject to rapid flooding. Despite the creation of a city-funded program that was to provide the opportunity for buy-outs of such at-risk properties, implementation has been excruciatingly slow. The filtration determination must streamline program procedures or find another way to advance these voluntary acquisitions and relocations before the next inevitable flooding event brings destruction and possible loss of life.

4. Additional funding for septic system repairs and community wastewater systems for watershed residents and small businesses. Tens of thousands of residents have homes across the one million acre Catskill/Delaware watershed. The new filtration plan should require continued funding by NYC for cost-effective Catskill Watershed Corporation programs that assist watershed communities in controlling sewage discharges. This should include cost-sharing for continuing residential septic system maintenance and repairs, assistance for community wastewater facilities, and new initiatives to help keep small business septic systems in a state of good repair.

5. Ongoing support for pollution-prevention activities by watershed farmers. There are more than 300 farms within the Catskill/Delaware watershed boundaries; protecting this land use and assisting Catskills farmers remains an important priority. The locally based Watershed Agricultural Council has safeguarded watershed lands by acquiring thousands of acres of farm and forest easements, and by designing and implementing best management practices on working farms to minimize pollution discharges. The filtration determination should direct New York City to timely renew its contracts with the Watershed Agricultural Council for these activities and to fully fund these programs through 2027.

6. Require a full, public review of the filtration avoidance program after 5 years and insure that the final plan includes specific timetables and funding requirements. The city is seeking a ten year filtration avoidance waiver from New York State. But many changes in water quality and watershed conditions can occur over a decade. The new filtration determination, if it is for a ten year period, should require a full assessment of all programs and formal public review after five years, so that watershed protection initiatives can be updated as needed based upon the latest information. The determination should also include implementation timetables and funding commitments to facilitate timely progress and regular assessments by oversight agencies and the public.      

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Finally, the new filtration avoidance determination is the perfect opportunity for the city to make good on its commitment to establish a satellite Department of Environmental Protection office within the watershed itself. This would enhance the upstate-downstate watershed partnership, which is in the interests of the entire region.

Here's hoping that New York State's draft filtration avoidance determination and New York City's proposed Catskill/Delaware watershed plan get the public attention they deserve, following their release, in the weeks to come.