New York State Authorizes 105,000 Acre NYC Watershed Land Acquisition Program to Safeguard Downstate Water Supply and Region's Economy

Thumbnail image for Ashokan 2.jpg

After extensive legal wrangling and nearly three years of negotiations among stakeholders, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) has issued a 15-year watershed land acquisition permit to New York City.  

The new permit authorizes the City to acquire up to 105,000 acres of sensitive lands that drain into the City’s Catskill and Delaware system reservoirs, which supply over a billion gallons of water daily to nearly half of the State’s population.

Among those who will directly benefit from issuance of the new State permit are nine million water users in New York City and Westchester County.

One benefit will be economic. As the State DEC Findings Statement that accompanied the permit concludes, the extended watershed acquisition program will contribute to the City’s continued “avoiding filtration with an estimated $10-15 billion cost.”

Indeed, this renewal of the willing-buyer/willing-seller land acquisition program represents the single most important step that State, City, and watershed officials have taken in more than a decade to enhance the protection of New York’s drinking water supply and to forestall massive water rate increases that would result if New York were ordered to build filtration facilities for the Catskill/Delaware supply.

New York City’s Catskill/Delaware water system is one of only five major unfiltered drinking water supplies in the United States. And to secure a continuing waiver from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act filtration requirement, the water system operators must demonstrate that they are implementing a comprehensive watershed protection program.  The National Academy of Sciences and the U.S Environmental Protection Agency have identified land acquisition as the primary line of defense for safeguarding watershed lands from pollution. Under its 2007 watershed protection plan, the city set aside $241 million for land acquisition to protect drinking water over ten years – a bargain and a no-brainer, compared to the multi-billion dollar costs of filtration.

A second benefit is long-term protection for the source of New York City’s high-quality drinking water supply. By authorizing the City to safeguard over 100,000 acres of forests, meadows, farms and wetlands in their natural state, the new permit should help to ensure clean water for half the State’s population deep into the 21st century.

Under the new permit, the percentage of State and City owned watershed acreage is projected to increase from 34 percent to 44 percent. Since 1997, the city has acquired more than 100,000 acres of Catskill/Delaware watershed lands and conservation easements in the successful first phase of its watershed land protection program.

  (Photo by Daniel Case)

A new state permit authorizes New York City to buy up to an additional 105,000 acres of sensitive lands that drain into its upstate reservoirs, like the Ashokan in Ulster County, pictured above, to safeguard drinking water quality for nine million downstate New Yorkers. 


Significantly, the new permit and the accompanying agreement among watershed stakeholders also provide benefits for upstate residents who live on privately owned lands in the Catskill/Delaware watershed region.

Such benefits include City commitments to: (1) provide continued funding for upstate water quality-related projects, such as septic system maintenance; (2) assist localities to ensure fair calculations of property taxes owed by the City to watershed communities; (3) increase recreational opportunities for local residents and tourists on City-owned watershed lands; and (4) allow watershed towns to exclude certain lands from the City’s acquisition program so that such parcels are available for future growth.

In exchange for securing these and other concessions from the City, the Coalition of Watershed Towns – which represents elected officials from communities in the Catskill watershed – agreed in late December to support the new permit and drop its lawsuit challenging the new land acquisition program.

The amicable resolution of this dispute marks a strengthening of the upstate-downstate partnership and perhaps even a lasting improvement in the relationship between watershed and New York City stakeholders.

Credit for this accomplishment goes to the government officials and other stakeholders who worked diligently on this matter over the past three years.

Among those deserving public thanks are Jim Tierney, and Bill Clarke and their team at State DEC; Roger Sokol and his colleagues at the State Health Department; Hilary Meltzer and her associates at the Corporation Counsel’s office; Denis Lucas, Alan Rosa, Jeff Baker and Kevin Young, representing watershed interests; and Paul Rush, Dave Warne and their colleagues at NYC Department of Environmental Protection.

New York City Councilman Jim Gennaro, who heads the Environmental Protection Committee, was the first public official to press for a vigorous continuation of the City’s land acquisition program in 2006 and 2007.  And at U.S. EPA, Walter Mugdan and Kevin Bricke also played critical roles in 2007, convincing New York decision makers to fully fund the extended land acquisition program.

Here at NRDC, our staff pressed for years for an extension of the watershed land permit, participated in the long-running negotiations and intervened in the litigation to defend the City’s land acquisition program. Other environmental group participants in the talks included Riverkeeper, as well as the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, NYPIRG, the Open Space Institute and the Trust for Public Land. 

The State issued the new permit on December 24, 2010, but city and state officials did not publicly announce the news until today, presumably to give the Cuomo Administration a chance to review the new initiative.  Today’s release of the permit is welcome evidence that Governor Andrew Cuomo understands the link between protecting New York’s water quality and insuring the state’s long-term economic well-being.