New York City Depends on Natural Water Filtration
The clean, plentiful water that New York City residents drink isn't the result of a technological miracle. The natural systems of upstate New York's Catskill/Delaware watershed provide most of the City's drinking water. While other cities spend billions of dollars on filtration systems, the New York City water supply predominantly depends on the natural landscape to filter water, along with chlorination to kill microorganisms, for its 1.4 billion gallons of water each day. Those natural filtration services that New Yorkers expect can no longer be considered free or even inexpensive. The 1989 Federal Safe Drinking Water Act's (SDWA) Surface Water Treatment Rule (SWTR) mandates filtration of public surface water supplies, but suppliers can receive a waiver from that rule if they demonstrate the ability to minimize waterborne disease contamination, phosphorus loads and turbidity in their waters.
To fend off the $6 billion dollar price tag for construction of a new filtration facility and the associated $300 million per year for operating costs, New York City is protecting its vital water-filtering ecosystems by investing up-front in nature's services. Development, runoff from agricultural lands and impervious surfaces, and discharges from wastewater treatment plants are threatening the natural filtering abilities of New York's land-based ecosystems, wetlands and waterways. The City is implementing extensive watershed management measures, including water quality monitoring and disease surveillance, land acquisition and comprehensive planning, and upgrading wastewater treatment plants. Although millions of New York City residents will benefit from these measures, tens of thousands of rural residents initially felt they were paying the price with stifled economic development. A Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) signed in 1997 by New York City, communities of the Catskill/Delaware watershed, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), New York state, and certain environmental organizations sets parameters for protection and compensation for rural areas in exchange for a waiver from EPA that avoids filtration of the Catskill/Delaware systems until revaluation in April 2002. The tradeoffs faced by rural residents -- controlled and limited growth that results in greater protection of land and water resources -- don't seem so harsh.
Both rural and urban New York residents will benefit from wastewater treatment upgrades in upstate New York. According to EPA Region 2, New York City Watershed Team Leader, Jeffrey Gratz, nearly three-dozen wastewater treatment plants located west of the Hudson River and six east of the Hudson are slated for upgrades. After these upgrades are complete, 90 percent of wastewater flow from the western region will be micro-filtered. Upgraded treatment already filters 40 percent of the wastewater from communities east of the Hudson. Upgrades are completely funded by the city of New York, with over $70 million committed. Local residents and New York City will share the costs of operating and maintaining these plant upgrades. As a result, New York City residents will pay more for their water, but New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner, Joel Miele, believes everyone benefits from improved wastewater treatment that results in safer drinking water for all.
Protecting natural landscapes in the watershed is essential for maintaining the water-cleansing capabilities of the land. To prevent future contamination of the water supply and ensure filtering capability in the future, New York City established a program to purchase land and encourage conservation easements. According to the MOA, the City must solicit owners of 355,000 acres of land in the Catskill/Delaware watershed over the next ten years. New York City backs this with a $250 million commitment. Land is to be purchased only from willing sellers and for full market price. EPA's Jeff Gratz notes that, as of Fall 2000, land acquisition was mostly on target, except for the Kensico Basin, where more work is needed. So far, 25,000 acres have been acquired. Conservation easements are funded through a number of different Federal, State and City strategies. Easement programs, such as the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), are supported jointly by USDA and New York City. DEP Commissioner Miele says, so far, 50 landowners have placed 600 acres in this easement program, making a dent in the City's goal of 5000 acres.
Several citizens groups have formed to ensure local participation in decisionmaking. The nonprofit Watershed Agricultural Council (WAC) provides a voice for farmers and forest landowners. WAC Chair, Richard (Dick) Coombe, notes that the organization is committed to assisting the agricultural and forestry communities with adopting management techniques that both protect water quality and enhance economic viability. Conservation easements provide landowners with yearly payments in exchange for maintaining the land in a natural state. Coombe says 50-70 percent of agricultural easement offers may be accepted by farmers. However, he considers these offers 10-15 percent less than may be fair in some circumstances.
The City also is sharing the cost of implementing agricultural, forest and stream best management practices (BMPs). BMPs such as buffers and setbacks, soil-conserving tilling and grazing practices, streambank fencing to keep animals out of waterways, and erosion-preventing forestry strategies help preserve the natural water filtering capabilities of the land and prevent potential disease-causing contaminants from entering waterways. Many of these practices can be put into place at little or no cost to the landowner, thanks to a wide array of funding avenues. Some, like soil-conservation practices, may even enhance the bottom line. WAC is contracted by NYC DEP to help landowners develop pollution prevention plans and implement BMP use on over 85 percent of the farms in the Catskill/Delaware watersheds.
Over time, systematic and careful monitoring for disease-causing organisms and pollutants will determine the success of New York City's protection strategies. EPA's Gratz says community and farmer buy-in is critical to the success of New York City's filtration avoidance plan. The tradeoffs may not be as painful as first thought, because ultimately, rural New York residents will benefit as much as their urban cousins from the preservation and maintenance of nature's water-filtering systems.
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