Pure Water Times

Vol. 1 No. 1 October 15, 1995

Edited by Edith Cresmer

What is the Pure Water Alliance?

In the fall of 1993, faced with growing threats to the New York City water system and a lack of political progress to craft a solution, the Appalachian Mountain Club, New York City Audubon Society, and Sierra Club joined together to present a seminar at the American Museum of Natural History.

The purpose of this seminar was to raise awareness of the then proposed watershed regulations. American Littoral Society and New York City Trout Unlimited joined these groups shortly after to sponsor follow-up meetings.

This loose coalition subsequently evolved into a more formal coalition, the Pure Water Alliance, in an attempt to involve other constituencies.

The Pure Water Alliance is now a coalition of over 30 environmental, housing, health, and community organizations in the downstate region who have joined together to create a constituency for watershed protection.

The Pure Water Alliance organizes seminars and workshops on these issues, produces newsletters and mailings, to educate our elected officials, and provides speakers at community events. Regular meetings are held for all Pure Water Alliance members to be briefed on current activities and events.

The goal of the Alliance is to support the creation of a comprehensive watershed protection program which will provide clean and affordable water for future generations of New Yorkers.

The Pure Water Alliance advocates for:

Status of the Watershed Protection Program

With foresight, brilliant engineering, and indeed luck and serendipity, New York City possesses one of the best municipal water systems in the world. This is true from a quality, aesthetic, and engineering point of view. Today, the system's 19 collecting reservoirs provide on average 1.4 billion gallons per day to nine million residents in New York City and upstate counties. Roughly 90% of the City's supply is taken from West-of-Hudson Catskill and Delaware watersheds, and 10% is drawn from the nearby East-of-Hudson Croton watersheds. Historically, the City's system has provided high quality tap water to New York residents and businesses. This has been particularly true from the Catskill and Delaware watersheds. Because of the relatively undeveloped nature of these systems and the long residence time of water in the reservoirs, the City has relied on natural processes to protect this water without filtration equipment. Nevertheless, in recent decades, development pressures have intensified in the West-of-Hudson counties and City officials are now concerned that prompt actions are necessary to protect these watersheds.

In the nearby Croton system, increased suburban development in Westchester and Putnam Counties over the last several decades has led to measurable declines in reservoir water quality.

As a result of this deterioration, City officials have committed to installing a filtration plant for the Croton supply by 1999. The cost of this plant is estimated (in 1990 dollars) to cost approximately 600 million to build and 30 million a year to maintain.

In 1990, New York City Began efforts to put in place a comprehensive watershed protection program for the Catskill, Delaware, and Croton watersheds. A central component of this initiative is the revision of the City's 1953 watershed regulations. In December 1994, after preparing approximately seven different drafts and holding two sets of public hearings, New York City forwarded its revised rules to the New York State Health Department for final approval under state law. Among other things, the December 1994 draft rules mandate the upgrading of the more than 100 sewage treatment plants in the watershed, establish set-back distances for the siting of new septic systems, and require the preparation and approval of plans to control stormwater runoff from new development projects.

In December 1993, the US Environmental Protection Agency granted New York City a three year conditional waiver of filtration for its Catskill and Delaware systems provided the City satisfies over 150 requirements, including promulgating new watershed rules and moving ahead with acquisition of critical parcels of lands surrounding upstate reservoirs and their tributaries. Unfortunately, the City's proposed regulations and land acquisition program has encountered fierce resistance from upstate counties, and has not been fully supported by New York State governmental agencies. As a result, to date not a single acre of land has been purchased and the 1953 watershed rules remain in effect.

The stakes are high for implementing the City's watershed protection program. If New York City is unable to protect the Catskill and Delaware systems from degradation, it likely be required to filter this supply at a capital cost of $4-8 billion (again in 1990 dollars) and about $300 million a year to maintain. Ironically, filtration alone will not be adequate to protect the quality of the water. Currently, Governor Pataki is holding closed-door negotiations in an effort to resolve the upstate-downstate impasse. The Pure Water Alliance is concerned that these secret negotiations will result in a less comprehensive watershed protection program, including even weaker watershed regulation than the barely adequate version forwarded to the State Last December. It is projected that some announcement by the Governor's office will be made over the next few months. Whatever comes out of this process, it is anticipated that the City will hold new public hearings on the modified draft rules. The Pure Water Alliance will keep the community posted on the status of the Governor's talks and the scheduling of any public hearings.

Mayor Proposes Sale of New York City Water System

In a shortsighted move that could jeopardize long-term water quality and boost City water rates, the Giuliani Administration is pressing ahead with plans to sell-off the City's entire water and sewer infrastructure, including its 19 upstate reservoirs.

The proposed sale to a state-created shell corporation, the New York City Water Board, is designed to generate 2.6 billion dollars that would be raised from New York City water and sewer ratepayers. To pay for the sale, another state-created entity, the Municipal Water finance Authority would issue bonds to be paid off over the next 30 years.

The proposed sale would require that water and sewer ratepayers fund approximately one billion dollars of non-water and sewer-related projects. Since water and sewer rates have jumped over 150% in the last decade, this would in practical terms mean less money for water and sewer projects and place an economic strain on ratepayers.

Second, turning over legal title of the City's entire water and sewer control to a state-created corporation opens the door to greater control by Albany over the quality and cost of the City's drinking water.

Third, the proposed sale is considered by many financial experts to be a fiscal gimmick that brings forward future revenues for a short-term cash infusion.

Opposition to the proposed sale has been widespread. A coalition of more that 50 housing, civic and environmental groups organized by the Pure Water Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council have formally called upon the Mayor to withdraw this proposal. The Proposed sale has generated little support in any major constituency.

The most encouraging news so far on this issue has come from the New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who has stated that the City should retain ownership of its irreplaceable water assets. Any sale of the water system would require the Comptroller's approval for the new bonding, and Mr. Hevesi publicly stated this summer that he would not approve the issuance of bonds for this proposed transaction. In support of the Comptrollers stance, a New York Times editorial stated that "Mr. Hevesi is fundamentally right to worry about the risks of unloading a priceless part of the City's life-support system over which it should exercise unquestioned control." (June 29, 1995)

After the Comptroller's decision, the Giuliani Administration announced that it was considering a lawsuit against the Comptroller to force his approval of the proposed sale. Although no lawsuit has yet been filed, there is every reason to believe that the City has not abandoned this ill-conceived proposal and that a challenge to the Comptroller's courageous decision could be filed at any time.

The Pure Water Alliance is monitoring this issue closely and urges concerned ratepayers to write to Mayor Giuliani and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone requesting them to abandon this potentially disastrous plan.

Upcoming Events

Hands Around the Reservoir Will take place on November 18 at the Central Park Reservoir. Gather at 1:00 P.M. at East 90th Street and Fifth Avenue. More information is available from David Ferguson at (212) 989-0519.

Public Hearings on Regulations will most likely take place later this year. No details are available currently but we will keep you informed as soon as details are available.

Membership Information

Membership in the Pure Water Alliance is available to any membership organization interested in the protection of the New York City Watershed. Meetings are held monthly at NRDC. Membership dues are a suggested contribution of $25 per year.

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