Watershed Agreement Proposed

by Steven Schwartz, Conservation Chair, NYCTU

November 8, 1995

On November 2, the State and City of New York in cooperation with the Coalition of Watershed Towns, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency and a handful of environmental organizations led by the Hudson Riverkeeper, announced that they had reached an Agreement in Principle on the protection of the New York City Watershed. These parties, who have been negotiating in secret for six months, are attempting to formulate a plan to avoid the considerable cost of filtration of most of the New York City water supply and protect the quality of the water for future New Yorkers.

The Agreement in Principle has some good news, and some bad news. First, the good news. One cornerstone of watershed protection is the acquisition and preservation of land. Under previous proposals, the City was attempting to acquire 80,000 acres of land in the watershed. The City has not acquired a single acre in two years as it has been blocked by a lawsuit brought by the Coalition of Watershed Towns. The new agreement calls for the city to acquire as much as 150,000 acres or 10% of the watershed area. This would bring the protected portion of the watershed in line with other municipal water supplies throughout the region. The acquisitions would be made on a fair market value, willing buyer, willing seller basis, with some level of local review.

The agreement also recognizes the importance of recreational uses on protected city owned land, establishing a Sporting Advisory Committee to oversee public access for fishing, among other uses. The agreement specifically calls for public access for fishing. Furthermore, a new stream corridor protection program would be created, targeted to spend $3 million over 15 years. At present, this program is focussing on Schoharie Creek and Batavia Kill. While the City Department of Environmental Protection's interest is in reducing turbidity (through sediment and erosion control), TU has made clear that habitat improvement and turbidity reduction, should go hand in hand.

The bad news is in the regulations. In December 1994, DEP proposed a set of regulations deemed barely adequate by the Pure Water Alliance, a coalition of 32 environmental, health and housing organizations of which New York City Trout Unlimited is a founding member. Even EPA had reservations about the 1994 draft regulations. The regulations proposed on November 2 are far weaker than the previous draft.

There is still no regulation of pesticide or herbicide use in the watershed. These substances may have direct deleterious effects on the aquatic habitat when runoff carries improperly applied substances into the stream. In numerous instances, the regulations also allow the creation of new impervious surfaces such as roads and parking lots near the streams and reservoirs, which will only increase runoff of hazardous materials. New petroleum tanks and tanks containing undefined hazardous substances are allowed to within 100 feet of a watershed tributary.

Most importantly, the agreement allows for the creation of an almost unlimited supply of new sewage treatment plants although it does call for upgrading existing plants. Most of our neighboring state allow no discharges of sewage effluent into drinking water supplies. In the Cannonsville and Croton watershed basins, it allows for the creation of six new plants, and in the rest of the watershed, there are no limits. There are also no limits on new septic systems throughout most of the watershed. Sewage treatment discharges can overload the natural ability of the watershed to cleanse itself of bacteria and other hazards, and lead to diminished oxygen in the water, necessary for all aquatic life.

In summary, the proposed agreement is good in some respects but requires careful ongoing review. The negotiating parties should be commended for their achievements in a difficult climate.

While NYCTU, the Pure Water Alliance and other leading environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council have not yet taken a stance on the overall agreement, we urge you to become more knowledgeable about the details of the agreement and contact your local representatives to demand that the regulations be strengthened to further limit pesticides, herbicides, and the building of new impervious surfaces, septic and sewage treatment systems.