Protecting Drinking Water

The City of New York, which operates as a city/county consolidated government, and the counties of Delaware, Greene, Schoharie, Sullivan, Ulster, Putnam, and Westchester in New York State, have signed a watershed protection agreement that will protect the source of New York's drinking water supply. The partnership also includes the agricultural community, watershed municipalities, and the state and federal governments. Benefits to the city include a filtration waiver from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saving billions of dollars in capital costs. Upstate communities benefit from higher property values resulting from environmentally sound agricultural practices and planned sustainable development.

A historic agreement among the City of New York, 7 upstate New York counties, and 72 municipalities will assure a continuous supply of safe, unfiltered water for 9 million New Yorkers while strengthening rural economies in the state. The 1997 Watershed Memorandum of Agreement unites the watershed communities, New York City, New York State, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), environmentalists, and farmers in support of an enhanced watershed protection program for the New York City drinking water supply. The source of this water, world-renowned for its high quality and excellent taste, is a network of 19 reservoirs in 1,969 square miles extending 125 miles north and west of New York City and encompassing two different watersheds. These watersheds supply 8 million city residents and 1 million more people in Westchester, Putnam, Orange, and Ulster Counties with 1.4 billion gallons of drinking water daily.

The agreement, based on voluntary partnerships and locally based watershed protection programs, is designed to ensure that New Yorkers will enjoy high quality water into the 21st century. The program incorporates a multi-jurisdictional strategy to protect and improve water quality for decades to come. The program has already begun and, if it continues to be implemented successfully, New York City expects to receive a long-term waiver of the federal requirement that it filter water from its Catskill/Delaware supply.

According to New York Governor George Pataki, "The agreement not only protects drinking water, it will allow for economic growth in the watershed communities. But this agreement is more than clean water and economic growth; it is a new spirit of partnership between New York City and the watershed communities that will only help enhance New York's economic renewal and national leadership in environmental protection."

New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani added, "This marks the beginning of a long partnership between the city and the watershed communities, a partnership that has great benefits for both the consumers of the water and the residents of the watersheds."

Multi-Faceted Protection

The agreement consists of four separate watershed protection programs:

Land Acquisition Program
The Land Acquisition Program will enable the city to acquire environmentally sensitive, undeveloped land at fair market value from willing sellers. The city will continue to pay property taxes and conduct a community review process for any property under consideration. Because the parties recognize that any land acquisition program must provide reasonable opportunities for growth in and around existing population centers, the agreement allows some towns and villages to exempt certain areas from solicitation under the program.

The city is committed to spending up to $310 million on land acquisition in the watersheds through outright purchase or conservation easement. In October 1997, the city acquired the first parcels of upstate land under the agreement. The city currently has purchase contracts or options to purchase over 8,000 acres from 80 landowners across the watershed.

Watershed Regulatory Program
Under the agreement, new regulations were negotiated among counties and communities, the state, the city, EPA, and environmental groups to control pollution within the watersheds. The major thrust of these regulations is to ensure that new projects are designed and constructed in ways that protect water quality in the watersheds of the city's reservoirs. Water quality protection is to be achieved through a public-private partnership between New York City and the Watershed Agricultural Council.

Watershed Protection and Partnership Program
Agriculture is one of the major land uses in New York City's upstate watershed. Dairy and livestock farming in particular present one of the greatest challenges to the city's comprehensive watershed management program. While non-point agricultural pollution is a problem that must be solved, farmers are often opposed to traditional regulatory programs. The challenge is reconciling the public health and environmental resource protection interests of a large and distant city with the farm community's desire to maintain a fragile agricultural way of life in the watershed region. This challenge is further compounded by the standards and requirements of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the Surface Water Treatment Rule, and EPA's Filtration Avoidance for New York City.

In response to farmers' concerns about the potential economic impact of proposed revisions to New York City's watershed rules and regulations in 1990, the city put aside its purely regulatory approach and entered into a partnership with the watershed farm community to carry out a locally developed and administered voluntary Watershed Agricultural Program, the first upstate/downstate collaboration to link water quality protection goals with an economic objective: preservation of the watershed's farming economy. The city committed $3.9 million over the first two years to refine and demonstrate an environmentally sound "whole farm planning" approach on ten pilot farms. These farms will be used to market the program to all willing farmers in the watershed over the next five years, a project for which the city has committed $35.2 million. The farmer-led Watershed Agricultural Council had already exceeded its goal of 85 percent farm participation by fall 1997. Because the program has been so successful, New York City will not seek further regulation of the agricultural watershed.

Watershed Agreement Payment Program
As part of its financial commitment to the agreement, the city pays for upgrades to the wastewater treatment systems owned and operated by upstate municipalities and private operators. The agreement also provides for "good neighbor" payments, designated for public well-being, which go directly to the involved municipalities as payment for joining the agreement. As of April 1997, the city had delivered over $11 million to the Coalition of Watershed Towns and over $2.8 million to the Catskill Watershed Corporation.

Implementation of the Watershed Program

Several components of the watershed protection program that are funded by the City of New York are already under way (see box). When the agreement took effect, EPA issued a five-year Filtration Avoidance Determination. A review of the city's compliance with that determination will be completed by May 31, 2000. Commissioner Joel A. Miele, Sr., P.E., of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection said, "I am confident that the city will meet the provisions of the determination."

The Watershed Protection Agreement reflects the shared conviction of city and county representatives that voluntary partnerships can protect water quality as effectively as regulatory restrictions. According to Miele, "Most components of the watershed protection program are already being implemented. Cooperation among all the parties to the agreement has been outstanding."

Components of the Watershed Protection Agreement
That Are Currently Under Way

Upgrading of the nine city-owned upstate sewage treatment plants (cost: approximately $232 million);

Rehabilitation and upgrading of city-owned dams and water supply facilities in the watershed (cost: approximately $240 million);

Implementation of the Watershed Agricultural Program (cost: $35.2 million);

Construction or upgrading of public and privately owned wastewater infrastructure, including failing septic systems (cost: approximately $300 million);

Acquisition of hydrologically sensitive lands in high priority areas near reservoirs, streams and wetlands (cost: from $260 million to $310 million);

Establishment of the Catskill Fund for the Future, an economic development bank to support responsible, environmentally sensitive projects in the watershed (cost $75 million);

Extensive review of proposed developments and other projects to ensure compliance with watershed regulations and standards and the protection of water quality;

Monitoring of water quality in streams, reservoirs, and the distribution system;

Formation of the Watershed Protection and Partnership Council; and

Establishment of Sportsmen's Advisory Councils to review and recommend possible public recreational uses of city-owned lands in the watershed.

For further information, contact:
Joel A. Miele, Sr., P.E., Commissioner
New York City Department of Environmental Protection

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