Drink to This: New York City's Watershed Deal Will Continue

New Yorkers proud of their water supply, filtered only by upstate forests and meadows, can now look forward to another 15 years of quality H2O. Under an agreement between the city, state and federal EPA, a land acquisition program targeting private properties in the watershed area will continue.

The agreement was hailed by officials and environmentalists alike, including attorney Eric Goldstein of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Goldstein noted that city water rate payers would bear the cost of purchasing the upstate lands, currently about $140 million in projected costs, but said on balance it's a good deal.

"The alternative is to build massive filtration facilities that would cost New York City ratepayers $10 billion or more just in capital expenses," said Goldstein.

The city chlorinates its water supply, and subjects it to ultraviolet disinfection, but is one of just five major systems in the nation not required by federal authorities to install a filtration system. That's due to a program, begun in 1997, which has resulted in 200,000 acres of watershed land becoming protected.

According to a city Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, roughly 8,000 to 10,000 acres have been acquired each year for a total of 116,000 acres of watershed land so far. Last year, approximately 12,000 acres (18.75 square miles) were acquired.

Councilman James Gennaro, who heads the Environmental Protection Committee, said the city benefits from a perfect storm of conditions, including an available watershed and a quid-pro-quo mentality between city and upstate legislators: city residents (as well as some upstate) have access to clean water, while upstate residents are also allowed to hunt and pursue other forms of recreation on the undeveloped land.

Under the agreement, upstate counties will be able to permit some development, provided it is sustainably designed.

"The No. 1 threat in our upstate reservoir today from pollution is stormwater runoff," Goldstein said, "where water races over rooftops, driveways and parking lots and is flushed into streams that feed into our reservoirs. Those flashes of stormwater also pick up contaminants, fertilizers, pesticides, road salts -- all kinds of potential pollutants along the way."