Water from the NYC Watershed is considered to be the “Champagne” of drinking water. New York City ‘s drinking water supply system consists of 19 reservoirs and 3 controlled lakes within a 1,972 square mile watershed that stretches north and west of the City.
The watershed has two subregions, among which the Catskill/Delaware system supplies 90% of the City’s water. That is about 1.0 billion gallons of safe drinking water daily just to the eight million residents, tourists and commuters who visit New York City throughout the year. Another 120 million gallons a day go out to the one million residents in Westchester, Putnam, Ulster and Orange counties. In all, about nine million people benefit from this pure, high-quality, natural resource.
The Catskill/Delaware system, covering 1,600 miles, remains unfiltered, making it the largest unfiltered water supply in the US. Maintaining quality standards for such a large water supply without filtration is a tremendous challenge that requires millions of dollars each year on outreach and education, land management, land acquisition, and partnerships with watershed non-profits and municipalities. Given the time and energy devoted to developing and managing these programs, it might seem that a combination of filtration and disinfection would be a simpler way to achieve standards. Yet, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has concluded that filtration and disinfection are insufficient without preemptive watershed protections.
To begin with are the costs involved: the construction cost for a filtration plant large enough to support the Catskill/Delaware system is estimated to be $6 – $10 billion dollars, with an additional $110 million annually in operation and maintenance.
By contrast, although the total cost of watershed programs are difficult to quantify, it is not more than $100 million a year. In addition are the health and safety issues that would arise: without preemptive land protections, significantly higher levels of disinfecting chemicals would need to be used to purify the water. By-products from these chemicals are known to pose serious health risks and their use is in fact limited by federal law. Finally, high levels of chlorine are believed to damage the fittings within the water delivery system.
For all these reasons, it is preferable to protect the drinking water at its source.
In addition to saving billions of dollars, the Catskill watershed provides other economic functions besides providing and cleaning New York City’s water, such as attracting tourists or sponging up water from floods.
For nature, the benefits of the Public investing in watershed management helps to:
- Minimize soil erosion and nutrient loss, and to reduce the effect of sediment yield on the watershed.
- Rehabilitate the deteriorating lands.
- Reduce the occurrence of floods and the resultant damage by adopting strategies for flood management.
- Manage problematic invasive species for the forests supporting the watershed. In the Catskills, plants and animals such as the Japanese Barberry and the Asian longhorned beetle threaten to out-compete native species. The barberry can overtake understory vegetation, thus increasing the pH levels of the soil and consequently affecting its nitrogen levels. Similarly, the Asian longhorned beetle, an invasive insect thought to have arrived from China, has been known to decimate entire populations of hardwood trees.
Effective management recognizes the mutually dependent interaction of various basic elements of a watershed system. They are: hydrology (precipitation and flow), biology (flora, fauna, ecosystems), geology (landforms, soils, sedimentation, topography), sociology (culture, economics, history).
A comprehensive and innovative watershed protection plan: the New York City Watershed Agreement (MOA). The MOA was signed in January 1997 and is a partnership agreement.
Type of Partnership: Win-win for Public and Planet
The New-York State benefit from a fresh water source, and species from the forest benefit from a reduced occurrence of floods, soil erosion, nutrient loss and problematic non-endemic invasive species. Moreover, the Public benefits from tourism revenues driven by nature-lovers seeking a scenic and bio-diverse eco-system.