Restoring and protecting natural filters in the environment was the solution
It is a complex system. Delivering clean water to a city of 8.6 million residents requires a great deal of planning and engineering. But in New York City, the most critical component of their water works system maybe the simplest: restoring and protecting natural filters found in New York’s water system.
The System: Reservoirs, lakes, aqueducts
A system of nineteen reservoirs and three lakes that are generally located in the rural Catskills region north of the city provides 1.2 billion gallons of water daily. The water travels as much as 125 miles through aqueducts and tunnels to the city. This system began providing water in 1842. It has been expanded many times since with large expansions in the 1930’s, 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. Today it provides water to New York’s more than 3 million housing units and 1 million businesses.
The water this system produces is often considered among the best water of any city in the world. Generations of New Yorkers have enjoyed a simple system that provides clean water directly to their residences and businesses. Historically, the water from Upstate New York has been so clean that the city did not have to filter it before it reached faucets.
The Problem: High cost of filtration plants
Unfortunately, pollution has developed into a threat to the pristine water New Yorkers have taken for granted. By the early 1990’s the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New York State’s Department of Health (NYDH) demanded that the City take steps to protect its water supply. Plans were developed for a filtration plant that would for the first time treat the city’s water supply from the Catskills. The plant would cost $10 billion to construct and another $100 million to operate annually. This extraordinary cost would be borne by the city’s tax payers. And this is where the simplicity overtook the planning effort.
City engineers thought that rather than treat water after it gets polluted, the pollution should be prevented from ever fouling the city’s water supply in the first place. This approach led to the development of a plan that would yield green benefits twice –both financial and environmental.
The Solution: Restoring and Protecting Natural Filters
The plan laid out an aggressive approach to pollution prevention, addressing the most serious pollution generators in the reservoir watersheds. Every five years the City has revised the plan that needs EPA and NYDH approval (a Filtration Avoidance Determination- FAD). These FAD’s allow New York City to avoid the construction of a filtration plant for water from its reservoirs in the Catskills region. The City’s plan includes a broad suite of options to address potential sources of pollution.
The City protects (either through fee simple acquisition or conservation easements) hydrologically sensitive property. The City notes that this approach “serves a number of important water quality functions: maintaining natural features that filter pollutants before they reach reservoirs; precluding land uses that would otherwise introduce new pollutants into the water supply; and shifting development toward areas of less sensitivity.” Acquisition plans focus on properties that have streams, wetlands and floodplains. Between 1997 and 2013, the land acquisition program had protected 130,000 acres of land through acquisition or conservation easement. This was accomplished in partnership with almost 1,500 voluntary landowners.
Best management practices to restore and protect a watershed
The plan also calls for experts to provide farmers in the watershed with advice on best management practices (BMPs) for their agricultural operation. Whole Farm Plans have been developed on almost 400 farms resulting in the implementation of more than 5,000 BMP’s. BMP’s are practices that help reduce pollution, such as nutrients and sediment, generated from farms. These practices include riparian buffers (vegetated plantings along waterways and ditches), nutrient management plans, manure storage, and the elimination of harmful agricultural practices. Recent reports stated that more than 2,000 acres of forested riparian buffers had been planted in these watersheds.
Programs have also been developed for forest owners, owners of stream-side properties, and even homeowners. The forestry and stream-side programs provide management advice for landowners about the best methods to reduce pollution generated from these properties. Homeowners are eligible for help with improvements to their septic systems that reduce the amount of nutrients and dangerous bacteria fouling the watersheds.
The cost for this simple approach is $1 billion, saving the city $9 billion. And it also provides benefits for wildlife that enjoy the new habitat established and old habitat protected by this program.
Conclusion: Natural filters provide great value
New York City demonstrated that it is cheaper to prevent pollution than to treat pollution. This simple truth is too often ignored by society to the expense of its tax payers and the environment. New York City’s water system reminds us of the tremendous value nature provides us – value that is under-appreciated and often forgotten. It reminds us that by restoring the natural world we provide great value to ourselves too.
Hu, Winnie; “A Billion Dollar Investment in New York’s Water”; New York Times; January 18, 2018; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/18/nyregion/new-york-city-water-filtration.html
“New York City Filtration Avoidance Determination”; Environmental Protection Agency, New York State Department of Health; 2017 Surface Water Treatment Rule Determination for New York City’s Catskills/Delaware Water Supply System; December 2017.
Chris Pupke is the Executive Director of the Biophilia Foundation. Chris coordinates Biophilia’s grants program and assists with the habitat conservation program. His work supports projects that restore wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay, protects Jaguar habitat in the Sonoran Desert, reconnects migratory routes for Elk in the Rocky Mountains and more.
During his career in conservation, Chris has helped lead on-the-ground restoration projects that resulted in the restoration of 475 acres of wetlands, 28 acres of forests and 150 acres of native meadows. He previously worked at Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage and Pickering Creek Audubon Center.
Mr. Pupke graduated from Drew University in Madison, NJ where he studied international diplomacy at the United Nations, British Politics in London and Greek History in Greece. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors and past president of the Queen Anne’s County (MD) Historical Society where has conducted important research on local U.S. Colored Troops that served in the Civil War. He has previously served as President of the Board of Directors for Queen Anne’s (MD) Conservation Association, a local smart growth advocacy group. He has also served as a member of the Board of Trustees of Camp Wright and is active in his local church.