Upstate Official Rips City's Treatment of Watershed

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A county executive in the Catskills says New York City is acting like an "occupying nation" in communities within its upstate watershed, polluting waterways, flooding homes and paying too little in taxes as it maintains the purity of its water supply.

Ulster County Executive Michael Hein sent a letter Monday to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, inviting him to tour the county and see problems he believes are caused or worsened by the city's Department of Environmental Protection in its role as caretaker of the network of stream-fed upstate reservoirs that supply the city's drinking water.

"The NYC DEP is presently operating much like an occupying nation within our county, extracting the natural resource of clean water while simultaneously polluting our waterways and causing massive regional economic hardships," Hein wrote.

"It's really a David and Goliath scenario," Hein said in a phone interview Monday afternoon. "First of all, they're not paying their fair share of taxes, which pushes the burden off on local residents."

Hein also accuses the DEP of foot-dragging for years on problems in the small community of Wawarsing, where a number of homeowners have suffered health problems from mold caused by repeated basement flooding from a leaking underground aqueduct carrying water to the city.

Rancor between the upstate watershed communities and the city's water supply agency has simmered for decades, but the pollution of the Esopus Creek has brought it to a boiling point in recent years

In January 2010, in response to citizen complaints about the silt-filled water, Hein filed a notice of intent to sue DEP under the federal Clean Water Act. In response, DEP pledged to work with local officials and residents to come up with solutions, and to take steps to prevent muddy releases in the future.

The environmental group Riverkeeper said last month that none of the DEP's commitments have been honored. Ulster County and Riverkeeper have petitioned the state Department of Environmental Conservation to require DEP to get a permit that would limit muddy releases from the Ashokan to the lower Esopus.

Bloomberg's office deferred comment on Hein's letter to DEP spokesman Farrell Sklerov, who said the watershed agency is actually an economic engine, "investing $1.5 billion over the past two decades in watershed protection efforts that support sustainable economic development with good jobs for local communities."

The city pays more than $130 million per year in direct tax revenue to watershed communities, and it employs more than 1,000 upstate residents, Sklerov said.

The upstate reservoir system provides a billion gallons of water a day to 9 million people, including a million upstate residents in Ulster and other counties.