New York City's watershed protection praised by the UN Environment Programme

The "Green Breakthroughs" report by the UN Environment Programme includes a favorable description of New York's water supply system: "New York City has long provided one of the earliest and clearest examples of an ecological service in action."

New York "has historically expanded its water supply system by securing lands and water resources in its rural hinterland. This started with the acquisition of forest land in the Croton catchment and the construction of the Croton Aqueduct system in the mid-19th century. It continued with land acquisitions in the Catskill and Delaware catchments and construction of the 190 km Catskill Aqueduct, starting in the early 20th century. The drivers of this water strategy have always been the assumption that fresh water released from an intact forested catchment would be fit to drink without further treatment, but that preventing harm to the catchment forests would best be achieved if the City has actual ownership (or other direct control) over activities within the catchment. Based on these assumptions, it was considered more cost effective to acquire control over catchment lands and protect their forests, than to invest in expensive water fi ltration or other treatment facilities.

"By these means, the City secured a reliable water supply of about five billion litres of water daily for over nine million consumers in the City and several suburban counties. This supply is delivered by means of a complex network of reservoirs, aqueducts, tunnels and pipes. The system depends on a 5,200 square kilometre catchment that spans eight counties in New York State, some 73% of which is under forest.

"It comprises the Delaware system (about 2,600 sq km), the Catskill system (about 1,600 sq km) and the Croton system (about 1,000 sq km). The City of New York owns over 433 sq km of this land, including 134 sq km of reservoirs, in the three catchments. It also has easement agreements covering a small part of the catchment area. Another 20% of the area is protected as New York State Forest Preserve, but the remaining 70% or more is privately owned and occupied by over 207,000 people, necessitating dialogue and negotiation with stakeholders to minimise threats to catchment function.

"To maintain its water supply arrangements and avoid the cost of major investment in filtration facilities, the City of New York had to remain exempt from federal regulations which require municipal suppliers to fi lter drinking water from surface sources, a rule designed to protect public health. To do this, it would have to convince the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that it had put in place a catchment management programme able to safeguard the public from waterborne disease. A series of complex negotiations therefore began, to secure a waiver from the fi ltration requirements of the federal Surface Water Treatment Rule. These negotiations involved the City, EPA, upstate communities, New York State agencies, and environmentalists.

"The outcome in 1997 was that a ten-year filtration avoidance determination was secured from the EPA, a water supply permit was granted by the state, and a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) was finalised among all the parties. By protecting the watershed at its source, we avoid spending the estimated $8 billion to $10 billion to build a filtration plant and the $400 million in annual maintenance and operation costs. New York State is a committed steward of the watershed.” Pete Grannis, Commissioner of the New York StateDepartment of Environmental Conservation

"The success of this arrangement was confirmed in July 2007, when New York State’s environmental and health commissioners announced a 10-year extension agreed to by federal, state and New York City officials to protect the Catskill/Delaware catchment. This Filtration Avoidance Determination, continues and expands a number of core programmes critical to water quality protection. These include community and wastewater management, septic repair and replacement, land acquisition, forest easements and riparian and buffer programmes. The continuing MoA, of which the filtration waiver is a vital foundation, is an experiment in taking shared responsibility for catchment protection, and its renewal is both a testament to the innovative cooperative efforts of wide variety of catchment stakeholders, and a reminder of what is possible when committed individuals and agencies strive to achieve effective, forward-looking environmental stewardship."

http://www.unep.org/dec/PDF/Green_Breakthroughs.pdf, p.54

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