Tensions persist over NYC reservoir land protection more than 25 years after pact
| September 20, 2023
New York City in 1997 rolled out a program across Delaware, Greene, Sullivan, Schoharie and Ulster counties to protect its drinking water supply, which serves over nine million people and provides 1.1 billion gallons of water a day to the city and Hudson Valley communities.
The program’s key tool: land acquisition.
But a lot has changed since a landmark memorandum of agreement was reached after many years of complex and difficult negotiations between the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and the affected counties.
Local officials and residents in Delaware County wonder if the quantity of land the city has purchased — more than 100,000 acres so far at a cost of $2.5 billion — is the best way to protect the watershed and how to pivot to other options.
It’s one of the reasons why the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine did a full review of the watershed protection program, addressing questions like:
* How can the Watershed Protection Program adapt to changes in agriculture, timber harvesting, tourism and recreational use, and other land and resource uses?
* How can subprograms, monitoring, and modeling be more effectively integrated?
* How can the skills, dedication, and professionalism of the first generation of Watershed Protection Program leaders, technical specialists, operations staff, and partners be seamlessly transferred to a new generation?
Concerns from locals
Those are some of the same questions that locals in Delaware County have, including Nick Carbone, watershed affairs coordinator for Delaware County.
“You see the amount of land controlled by the state, and it’s significant,” Carbone said. “Ownership is a tool in the toolbox of watershed managers. Owning land to limit human activity is something that’s done in every watershed, and it’s a means by which you control negative impacts to water quality associated with human activity. We understand that.”
For the DEP, which has so far purchased more than 140,000 acres in the region to protect its water system, the stakes are enormous: The watershed protection program allows the city to avoid building a multi-billion-dollar water filtration plant, which would be its largest single capital project ever.
“What is the end game?” Carbone asked. “What is the final result? What number of acres acquired will be enough?”
Carbone believes Delaware County will be affected the most by DEP because the land is cheaper and it poses less of a tax burden for the DEP. It’s one of the reasons why he’s called for another environmental impact statement to address issues related to land acquisition.
“It’s affected what local people can do here,” he said. “The price of properties has gone through the roof if you’re a local person looking to stay here.”
Delaware County officials want more say
“It’s always been a bit of a David-and-Goliath battle,” said Ric Coombe, chairman of the Coalition of Watershed Towns.
When the DEP acquires land, it’s done on a willing buyer/willing seller basis. But Coombe said that not all of the land purchased in the county was critical for water protection and was some of the most developable land in the area.
“If you restrict the land based on slopes, already owned by the city, and easements, you find that the potential developable land is much, much smaller,” Coombe said. “You can’t develop a municipality on the steep slope of a hillside.”
That means it’s harder to find areas for a new grocery store, workforce housing and other needs. Coombe said that sometimes it’s a matter of taking a closer look at the land the city wants to buy.
“If there’s a 100-acre parcel, and 95 acres are steep hillside in the backcountry, and then there are five beautiful, flat acres close to town, we would want to say they can buy the 95, but the five needs to be preserved for future development,” he said.
Other watershed protection approaches
The DEP funds other watershed protection programs, like the Watershed Agricultural Council, which serves as a liaison between farmers and New York City.
“Our goal is for farmers to keep being able to farm on their land,” said Heather Magnan, communications manager at the council, which has three programs: agricultural, forestry and economic viability.
There are incentives for being a good steward and helping to protect the watershed. Grants can help pay for things like a new manure spreader, which would otherwise be a large expense.
“It is amazing everything that goes into keeping the water clean,” Magnan said. “We’re just one little part, but there’s so much that people don’t understand.”
Aside from the memorandum of agreement, there is also a Filtration Avoidance Determination.
“The FAD includes a solicitation requirement, not a specific acreage purchase requirement,” John Milgrim, a DEP spokesman, said. “Our semi-annual report on the FAD, published this August, includes county-by-county data showing currently eight projects potentially accounting for 883 acres currently under negotiation in Delaware County.”
“DEP intends to continue operations, and remains actively engaged in an ongoing process with all stakeholders, pursuant to the FAD with a goal that any potential proposal to modify any program would include consensus of all the stakeholders,” Milgrim said.
An ongoing partnership with DEP
There’s little debate about the need to protect the city’s water supplies but questions persist about the best approaches.
“It’s become a much more orderly process since the MOA in 1997,” Coombe said. “It’s a balance between protecting New York City’s water, which is critical, but the MOA is also supposed to maintain and enhance the economic vitality and viability of the upstate communities.”
Carbone said he was concerned that decades from now, “you might have a whole new cast of people that work for the DEP that don’t understand that there is a partnership here.”
What Delaware County advocates are pushing for is other ways to protect water quality, like stream bank protection work and riparian buffer plantings, which separate farmland from natural waterways. Those approaches align with findings in the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine report.
Others stand behind land acquisition.
The Open Space Institute announced in July a $666,500 purchase of 261 acres in the Catskills to help protect the city’s watershed.
“Conserving land is one of the most powerful things,” said Siobhan Kent, director of communications at the institute. “That’s why we invest so heavily in it.”