Pepacton Reservoir, Delancey, N.Y. DC
The Pepacton Reservoir is among the reservoirs that New York City relies on for its water supply.

‘Very encouraging progress’ in talks between Catskills localities and New York City on reservoir land protection

| February 26, 2024

A light at the end of the tunnel is coming into view in the negotiations between New York City and Catskills localities about the city’s land-buying to protect its watershed in the region. 

A report, released in December by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, revealed that there has been significant progress toward a compromise among the stakeholder groups involved. 

“Overall, the progress and the negotiations are generally moving in good faith,” said Ric Coombe, chairman of the Coalition of Watershed Towns. “I think that is the biggest message we have from our side. That doesn’t mean that everything is resolved, but we are not in a situation where the city isn’t listening or people are throwing crazy, new issues on the table. We have made very encouraging progress.”

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. 

A lot has changed since a landmark memorandum of agreement was reached in 1997 after many years of complex and difficult negotiations between the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and the affected counties. 

A big turn came after a National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine’s full review of the watershed protection program that revealed tools like stream bank protection work and riparian buffer plantings could be useful tools to protect the city’s water, even more so than land acquisition. 

The findings, which were issued in a 2020 report, aligned with the concerns of local residents and have since served as the backbone of the continuing conversations. 

From the beginning, critics worried about the economic growth of the area and property tax revenues. Residents wanted to see changes to the Land Acquisition Program and the Streamside Acquisition Program that had less impact on those living in the area. 

But 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. 

The Catskill/Delaware watershed covers 1,600 square miles and provides about 90 percent of New York City’s water supply. The watershed includes six reservoirs: Ashokan, Cannonsville, Neversink, Pepacton, Rondout and Schoharie.

The report reveals promising negotiations

The report, split into two sections for different workgroups, reveals that all of the parties are ready to meet in the middle. 

The first group was focused on conservation easements, a main source of contention for municipal leaders who have complained they’ve left the region at a huge disadvantage because the easements stood in the way of needed improvements to cell phone service and high-speed internet connectivity. 

According to the report, the Catskills communities proposed edits to replace language “prohibiting activities that relate to the siting or routing of facilities required for the gathering, transmission, or distribution of gas, electricity, water, telephone, or cable television services with reserved rights that would allow use of city-owned … lands for certain infrastructure that could advance the city’s and state’s energy goals, subject to appropriate conditions to protect water quality.”

The city did not oppose the revisions, the report added.

The second group is focused on the streamside acquisition program, which is pushing to encourage smaller, more targeted purchases near streams that feed the reservoirs, rather than bigger ones. 

That was something also largely backed by the National Academy of Sciences. 

This approach is currently only a pilot program in the Schoharie Basin area of the Catskills. New York City must decide whether to expand it to the rest of its reservoirs’ watersheds.

“I don’t think we’re too far off,” said Jeff Senterman, the executive director of the Catskill Center, which administers the streamside acquisition program. “I think there is a general agreement of what an expanded streamside acquisition program will look like. It’s coming along. We are on a path to agreeing to an enhanced program that works across the watershed with more tools.”

That includes additional ways to protect and restore riparian lands alongside streams to preserve ecological functions, stream stability, mitigate flood hazards and enhance recreational access.

Land acquisition program is still troublesome

While the conversations around the streamside acquisition program have advanced, the ones around the land acquisition program aren’t as far along.

“There are still issues surrounding the land acquisition program,” Coombe said. “How much land can they acquire and how do they want to do it? But we are making progress we feel is very consistent.”

Senterman said that while all land protection can help, there are certain lands that are more valuable for watershed protection, which is what the National Academies of Sciences found in its report. Some lands offer a higher level of protection because they have certain features, such as riparian areas, wetlands or steep slopes, than other lands do.

That’s why local stakeholders are pushing for the city to focus on lands that have higher protection value but that might be smaller in size.

Local stakeholders believe specific valuable lands should be targeted for purchase for watershed protection rather than a one-size-fits-all land acquisition approach that buys up land more broadly.

The DEP, though, stands behind the power of land purchases.

“Land acquisition is one of many successful programs and activities covered in the FAD [filtration avoidance determination] that are actively supported and undertaken by DEP to protect drinking water quality for half of the state’s population,” said John Milgrim, a DEP spokesman. 

According to Milgrim, the DEP reports twice each year on land acquisition activities, including data on the status of all solicitations. At any given time, there are typically multiple parcels throughout the watershed under contract or in negotiations.

However, Coombe said he feels as though the DEP at least recognized what the National Academies found when it comes to whether or not land acquisition is the best tool to use to protect the watershed. 

“Land acquisition outright is probably not going to be a big driver going forward,” Coombe said. “I think we are making progress. There’s a long way to go on substantially reducing the city’s ability to purchase land in the watershed. I think it’s something they recognize and we recognize that the progress is still ongoing.”

Senterman agreed, saying that “there will be less of ‘oh, hey, we’re buying 500 acres here and 1,000 there.’ That will be much more thought out and methodical in the future.”

What’s next

Senterman said that upcoming monthly meetings will focus on diving into the details of what these new programs will look like and to identify any potential pitfalls. 

He said he’s confident that by the end of the summer, if not before, there will be a new streamside acquisition program agreement. 

The land acquisition program will likely take longer because of the “history, emotion and feeling” behind the negotiations, he said. 

The DEP anticipates that the expansion and modification of the streamside acquisition program will likely be codified in 2025.

Senterman’s biggest takeaway? The memorandum of agreement is still working.

“These discussions and negotiations, by their nature, are going to start off with parties maybe even directly opposed, and a true negotiation is going to bring the parties together in some way,” he said. 

“We’re not getting everything we hoped and dreamed out of any one agreement, and I’m sure the communities and DEP would feel the same way. I think it speaks to the success of our agreement to manage our watershed jointly. It’s not always easy, and it’s definitely not quick, but it makes us all sit down, look at each other, have fun, and have real conversations to advance all of our shared values.”

Cloey Callahan

Cloey Callahan

Cloey Callahan graduated from the State University of New York at New Paltz in 2020 with her B.A. in communications and journalism. Since then, she's covered local news in the Hudson Valley across eight counties for two years, using a top-down approach and seeing how nationwide issues are impacting local residents. She pivoted to business news in 2022, covering the future of work across the globe, writing about things like artificial intelligence, the four-day workweek, diversity, equity and inclusion, unique office spaces, and more. She is currently a staff writer at Digiday's WorkLife.

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