A Watershed at Risk - Are We Protecting Our Water?

The biggest long-term threat to New York City's drinking water might not be the drought… or even terrorism. Environmentalists believe the city's upstate reservoirs are actually more endangered by pollution. Water quality is still high, but it has been declining over the years. This month, the Environmental Protection Agency will tell New York City whether it's doing enough to keep its reservoirs -- and its drinking water - clean. WNYC's Beth Fertig traveled upstate to find out what's threatening the city's increasingly fragile watershed.

It rained recently. So the Esopus Creek looks pretty clean from a distance. But if you wade in just a little, you can see why fishing instructor Bert Darrow calls it Yoohoo Creek.

DARROW: I'm standing in maybe 8 inches of water and I can't see my feet.

Darrow learned fly fishing more than 30 years ago, here in Shandaken, about 120 miles northwest of New York City. The Esopus Creek is famous for its trout. But for years, there's been so much sediment .. fish can't breed and neither can the insects they feed on. Darrow has no firm figures, but he says it's clear the trout population has been declining.

DARROW: I have pictures in just small areas where you would find anywhere from 15-20 anglers in the water within maybe 100 yards. And now you don't even find 10 anglers below the portal on the best day of the year.

The portal is where water flows into the Esopus Creek from the Schoharie Reservoir, 18 miles to the north. New York City's watershed consists of 19 connecting reservoirs over 2000 square miles. And geological reasons have made the Schoharie one of the muddier reservoirs. Natural gravity will get rid of a lot of that clay by the time it reaches New York City … and so can a chemical additive. But in the end, what flows from this stream is what New Yorkers are drinking. As Jim Tierney - the state's Watershed Inspector General - explains, there's no filtration system along the way.

TIERNEY: With this water the only thing that happens to it between the reservoir and the faucet is that it gets doused with some chlorine. It's not run through cheesecloth, it's not run through a chemical filtration plant or the like. And why do we care about clay in the water? Clay or particles can transport heavy metals, can transport pathogens - disease causing microbes. And it can also interfere with the effectiveness of chlorine. The chlorine can't get at bacteria and viruses as effectively to kill 'em.

There are only four other big cities that don't filter their water. Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. But in each of those cases, more than half the watershed is protected land - free of buildings and homes. In fact, the west coast cities effectively control almost all of their lands. Here in New York, though, just over a quarter of the watershed is government owned. And about 250,000 people are living in our watershed. In some places, they're literally living right ON the water supply.

In the tiny town of Fleishmanns, Tierney points to a row of two-story houses. Their backyards are just a stone's throw away from a stream.

TIERNEY: A septic system can't work in 20 feet of dirt. Right next to a stream. There's no sewage system around here, no wastewater treatment plant. So essentially when these people flush it's going into that stream right back there. And that stream is a drinking water stream that flows into the Pepacton reservoir.

Where it continues its journey to New York City. Now, these homes are private property - and the city can help them keep the water clean by paying to fix up their septic systems. Which it does. But problems like these are magnified when more people start living - and playing -- in the watershed.

GITTER: This will actually be the entrance to the Big Indian plateau part of our resort.

Dean Gitter is showing where he plans to build two new resorts. One on either side of the state's Belleayre Ski Center near Shandaken. Each hotel will have sweeping views of the Catskill Mountains, which go as far as the eye can see, and all kinds of amenities.

GITTER: The Wildacres hotel is family hotel. Three and a half stars. It will have a spa. It will have a Davis Love the Third-designed golf course.

Gitter is planning to build two golf courses. This depressed, rural area once thrived on resorts. And Gitter believes its future depends on year-round tourism.

GITTER: In order to have significant economic impact on the lives of people that live around here, you need people to stay overnight, go to the restaurants, buy gas, go to the grocery stores. And unless there are first class hotel accommodations most people will come and go in a day.

Gitter has purchased nearly 2000 acres… most of which would remain untouched except for nature trails. But while the developer insists he's abiding by every environmental regulation, New York City has complained the project will endanger its watershed. With 750 hotel rooms, the golf courses, roads and parking lots.. there are concerns that pesticides and runoff will trickle down into 2 big reservoirs on either side of these mountains. Construction of the resort is still pending state approval.

Big projects like this are rare, in the rural areas west of the Hudson. But there's more development to the east in Putnam and Westchester. Eric Goldstein, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council believes the watershed is at more danger than any time in its 150 year history.

GOLDSTEIN: There's a right way and a wrong way to encourage smart growth and if what you're doing is changing the landscape, building projects that lead to further strip malls, sprawl suburbanization, that ultimately is inconsistent with protecting an unfiltered water supply and it's crazy from a long-term public health perspective.

If water quality does diminish, Goldstein fears the city will be forced to build a filtration plant, at a cost of 4 to 6 BILLION dollars. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has already ordered the city to filter a smaller water supply from the Croton watershed, downstate. But the city was able to avoid filtering its huge upstate reservoirs, by signing an historic watershed protection plan in 1997. This included additional funds to buy more land … along with programs to help communities stop pollution at its source.

That agreement is now coming up for review, and the EPA is expected to decide any day whether the New York can still avoid filtering its water. Christopher Ward, the city's new Environmental Protection Commissioner is optimistic.

WARD: We have a partnership with people up there. And it's working. I mean our water supply is remaining as high standards that it's always had. And I think we just need to continue that sustainable relationship in and around the reservoirs. We're not facing, you know, a catastrophic threat.

Ward says large-scale development is unlikely in rural areas of the Catskills. He favors new programs that cooperate with the watershed towns, which have historically viewed New York City as a hostile invader trying to control their land.

Rene Van Schaack runs one program in Greene County that fixes up crumbling stream banks with money from New York City. This prevents clay from getting into the drinking water. And it's a nice thing for local residents. He shows off Broad Hollow - a clear stream that was once nothing but mud.

VAN ScHAAK: I got to tell you there were times when I really didn't know whether we'd make a difference or not.

The city plans to triple the amount of money it spends on streams, in the next five years. It's also proposing to fix more failing septic systems in towns like Fleishmans. And the city has already purchased close to 40,000 acres of new land.

But even if New York can avoid filtering its water for now - as expected - environmentalists question whether its moving fast enough to prevent long term damage. There are still hundreds of thousands of acres in private hands. And the EPA estimates there may be up to 15 thousand failing septic systems throughout the Catskill-Delaware watershed. The City has only fixed up 1300 so far. Jim Tierney, the watershed's inspector general, says it is an uphill battle.

TIERNEY: There's been a tremendous amount of good work that has happened. But there are 250,000 people who live in the watershed. There's development pressure over time. And the way it's in danger is not through one big collapse. There's not going to be a Love Canal in the watershed. What's going to happen is over time it could die a death of a thousand cuts.

But all of those small actions, affecting the city's water supply, are still in the hands of people. With constant vigilance, he believes, there is still time to protect the watershed. For WNYC I'm Beth Fertig.

Links to More Information about the Watershed

NYC Department of Environmental Protection - The Watershed Agreement
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
New York State Attorney General
Watershed Agricultural Council
Center for Watershed Protection
Catskill Watershed Corporation
Greene County Soil & Water Conservation District
Natural Resources Defense Council
Environmental Protection Agency