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The Future Of New York City's Water

by Sarah Crean, May 07, 2013


This is part 2 of a 2 part interview. Read the first part here. 

NEW YORK — Even after decades of commercial and residential development in upstate New York, the city’s mostly unfiltered drinking water is renowned for its purity. The water system will face increasing challenges — from growing demand to aging infrastructure to the possibility of gas drilling in neighboring counties — in the years ahead.

In the second part of Gotham Gazette’s exclusive interview with historian David Soll, the author of the newly released book Empire of Water (Cornell University Press) discusses the current and future challenges facing the city’s water supply system, which delivers over one billion gallons of fresh drinking water to nine million people each day.


In the interview, Soll describes how the city of New York was ordered by the federal government to build a filtration plant for water from the Croton system in 1993. Twenty years and over $3 billion later, the plant in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park is nearing completion. At the same time, the city has invested heavily in securing land that surrounds critical water sources. By 2017, the city will have spent nearly $2 billion protecting and managing upstate watersheds.

Soll also discusses the highly contentious question of hydraulic fracturing, why the practice has been essentially banned within the city’s watershed, and how the city of New York is trying to accomplish multiple — and perhaps contradictory — objectives through its current approach to fracking.

Soll is an urban environmental historian at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. He is particularly interested in the relationship between urban and rural areas and in the role that water plays in shaping the urban built environment. His current research focuses on water supply and sanitation in Bangalore, India.

GG: Can you explain more about the new water filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park that is coming online? I thought our water was unfiltered.

DS: The plant is very close to being done. New York officially has three water supply systems: the Croton, Catskill and Delaware systems. The Catskill and Delaware systems are very interlinked. Because Catskill and Delaware water is coming from a place that is not very densely populated, with relatively little industry, the city could take watershed protection measures to ensure that it could still meet the health standards. They are [also] building an ultraviolet facility in Westchester — that is almost done – so they don’t have to use as much chlorine to get rid of bacteria. Catskill/Delaware water is not filtered because the natural landscape acts as a filter.

There was no way NY could comply with safety standards for water coming from the Croton region. There’s too much development. That’s why they are required [by the federal government in 1993] to build the plant. That filtration plant is only for water coming from the Croton system, roughly 10% of the city’s water supply.

GG: Based on all your research, is it your sense that the fundamental objective of the 1997 Watershed Agreement — maintaining water purity in the Catskill / Delaware system — is being accomplished?

DS: Yes. It’s one of these things that’s working until it isn’t.

If there was evidence that the water was no longer meeting safety standards, the federal government could come in and say to New York: we understand you’ve invested lots of money, time and energy into watershed protection but it’s not enough. You’re going to have to build a filtration plant after all. New York has a ten-year “filtration avoidance determination” until 2017 because they’ve been very successful and demonstrated a real concerted effort in trying to make watershed protection work. It’s somewhat of a lifetime probation.

In analyzing how the 1997 Watershed Agreement was implemented, [I’ve looked at] the pattern of land purchases by the city. They can only buy land that people agree to sell to them. There was a fair amount of criticism in the early years of land purchases that a lot of this land wasn’t that important for water quality. There was a bit of a disconnect between the ostensible purpose of buying the land, which is to protect the water, and the actual physical repercussions of buying properties.

This is the messiness of democracy. They had to come up with some mechanism to acquire land but doing it by eminent domain was not going to be acceptable politically. No one is going to coerce any landowner into selling their land. What we do to make things fair and democratic is not always going to be the most efficient.

They [the city] are trying to strike a balance between those two poles. Residents in the Catskills are concerned about the economic future of their region, and they should have a role in the conversation. One of the frustrations that they had in 2007/2008 is that the federal government is awarding New York city this big extension [the 10-year filtration waiver] and they felt like they were excluded from a lot of those conversations.

This story doesn’t end in 1997 when the Watershed Agreement is signed. The story goes on. There continue to be conflicts and disputes. When 2017 rolls around, there will probably be a lot of discussions around land purchasing or other sorts of conflicts that residents in the watershed are having with the city. It’s very much an evolving kind of thing. It’s not a static process. These [conflicts over long-distance water supply systems] are by no means unique to New York. But the partnership aspect — watershed residents working together with the city — is a much closer and more intense relationship than in other places. That’s what distinguishes it.

GG: Water quality is tested regularly? If problems began to emerge, is it fair to assume the federal government would be involved?

DS: New York City has a rigorous testing mechanism, and they’re testing water in various places. If you walk around New York City, you see water testing stations — the grey metal boxes. That’s another example of how the water system affects what the city itself looks like. It’s not just about are we literally complying with the standards. It’s about which parts of the system are likely causing problems.

GG: How actively is the federal government monitoring the land acquisition targets within the 1997 Watershed Agreement? Are they micro-managing this process? For example, you write about a target of acquiring one-third of the land within the Delaware Watershed.

DS: My sense is that they require New York City to produce an extraordinary amount of data and reports. A lot of it — at least initially — had to do with solicitation targets … The city would develop these maps [of the watersheds] and break them out into priority areas. The highest priority areas had the most effect on land quality. In those areas, the requirement for solicitation was higher … In areas that are more distant, the requirements were a little less onerous. My sense is that the federal government recognizes that New York City can’t put a gun to anyone’s head and say sell. That’s contrary to the spirit and the laws that govern the Watershed program. What they can do is ask.

Land acquisition [as part of the 1997 agreement] was not just in the Catskill/Delaware system; they [the city] also acquired land in the Croton area. That was much more expensive land.Very high cost per acre. The water for the Catskill/Delaware system was passing through those [downstate] reservoirs at some point in time, whether for a few days or six-months. Acquiring land in those areas was also really critical. That’s where the Catskill/Delaware system’s water flows through on its way to the city.

GG: How did the 1997 Watershed Agreement/MOA establish a new paradigm for accomplishing an environmental objective?

DS: It pushes things in a new direction. We all want clean water but what’s the way that we get there? The initial reaction of city officials is to adopt top-down command and control regulations. It wasn’t necessarily far-sighted geniuses who said the environmental system is not working now. People resisted, and they said, ‘No, we’re not going to let you take our land and destroy the economic vitality of our region. So let’s figure out a different way to do this.’ And it took a lot of creativity and a lot of hard work.

The solution they came up with is really a combination of things. In some ways it’s a low-tech solution — buying land, protecting the watershed, changing the way that people farm, making it less chemical intensive. It’s important not to be too romantic. It’s also about building new sewage treatment plants for those communities, many of which New York City itself owns.

It is the kind of thing where there were various components of the plan and some of them are very straightforward — like sewage treatment plants so not as much bad stuff goes into the streams that feed into the reservoirs. But it’s not just that. It’s a combination of grey and green, which New York City is [also] trying to do with its sewage inside the city. Up until then, New York City hadn’t shown much creativity at all, just building one reservoir after another. The focus here is quality versus quantity. It’s a very different mindset.

GG: It does appear that the federal government pushed New York City to consider strategies that they may not have.

DS: That’s another important point. None of this would have happened if the federal government didn’t push this. The people [in city government who advocated a new approach] were in the minority and they probably wouldn’t have been able to effect this kind of paradigm shift without the pressure of the federal government saying, ‘You’ve got to build this plant [for Catskill/Delaware water] or come up with some other solution that’s going to satisfy us.’ In some ways this is a story about thinking outside the box.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that it was environmental regulations that started the ball rolling in the first place. The Safe Drinking Water Act says that every surface water supply had to be filtered that the Watershed Agreement really came about. There were a lot of interim steps but that was the trigger. Without pretty conventional government regulations it’s hard to see how that paradigm shift would have come about.

It’s also important to recognize that it doesn’t mean that we don’t need regulations — that we can just assume that people can hammer out agreements because people are reasonable. There were particular things going on in this case that enabled the outcome that occurred. Having those regulations on the books was an important part of it. I could see how this story could be potentially interpreted in different ways.

GG: Early on in the book you use the term “hydrological commons.” What does that mean?

DS: What it means for me is the area that is essentially affected by New York City’s water system. In some ways [for instance] Long Island is not part of [our] hydrological commons because it’s not getting its water from New York. In other ways, it is part of the city’s commons. Once Brooklyn stopped pumping water [from Long Island] there are a lot of places that used to be dry that all of a sudden get a lot wetter.

There are all of these connections — sometimes they’re physical, sometimes they’re political — that we don’t necessarily see. It’s common to talk about watersheds now. Many people have a sense of what that means. It’s a fairly big area —as far away as Philadelphia [which also relies on the Delaware River] — that ends up getting affected by New York City’s actions. This is a story about New York City, but it’s also a story about the region, mostly southeastern New York, but also Philadelphia, New Jersey … That end up being affected by things that New York did.

GG: How do you see the question of hydraulic fracturing in terms of this ongoing narrative between the city and the state, and trying to balance water safety and economic development?

DS: New York City presents this as a catastrophic risk to the city’s water supply system. There are many people [upstate] who wish they weren’t in the New York City watershed, but then there are others — who are outside the watershed —who say, ‘I wish I was in the watershed so we wouldn’t have to worry about this drilling thing.’

It’s very complex in terms of the potential risks. I come back to the question of how much has been invested over time in this water system. Is the potential risk of contamination worth putting that investment at risk? I tend to think no.

There’s another response that says this is such a large system with such enormous volumes that a well-regulated system — even with a few spills — would have relatively little impact. I’m not a geologist, or a hydrologist. I’m a historian. New York City has a fairly compelling case that to risk the system doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Does there need to be economic compensation for that? If you think about what the basic premise of the Watershed Agreement is — yes, New York City, you can have your water but you have to offset some of the economic difficulties that people experienced there as a result of you needing this water. Should the city or the state — or some combination of the two — compensate people for their lost economic opportunities? That doesn’t strike me as an unreasonable question to ask.

GG: Now that its watershed is off limits to drilling, the city is not going to fight drilling in other parts of the state. At one point the city wanted upstate water, but they also want sources of energy that could potentially come from upstate New York.

DS: New York City government has the responsibility to ensure that its citizens can have access to basic resources. Water and energy are both basic resources. The city operates a system that supplies water, and it wants to — very rationally — protect those investments. It also wants to ensure energy to its citizens. If they’re able to get that energy closer to New York City, it stands to reason that the cost of delivering that energy is going to be cheaper. The city is advocating on behalf of its citizenry. Does that seem selective to the upstate resident who says, ‘Well, you’re protecting your own, why can’t I protect my own?’ Sure.

They’re doing their job as they understand it. Both perspectives are legitimate. That’s part of what presumably state government is supposed to do — to try to be a broker and figure these things out. New York City is part of the state, but it’s not the whole state. The role of the state is to weigh these competing interests.

GG: In closing, what else would you want to say about the NYC water system?

DS: The other angle is that the city’s water network is really important for recreation. Certainly within the city, but also outside of it. The reservoirs in Westchester are really popular for ice fishing, people go picnic at the Kensico Reservoir. Yes, the purpose of this system is to provide water to the citizens of New York [and 90 percent of Westchester’s water] but there are all of these other ancillary benefits. It doesn’t mean that from the perspective of the person in the Catskills, it necessarily makes up for the destruction of their grandfather’s farm. They have to decide.

But it created this whole network of recreation in a region like the Catskills that doesn’t have many natural lakes; in a region like Westchester where it can be hard to find peace and quiet. These other aspects are important. It’s worth seeing infrastructure in a different way. It’s not just a big pipe in the ground. It can also have all of these other benefits in our lives. That’s a useful perspective to bear in mind when there’s a lot of discussion today about decaying infrastructure and do people want to pay for it. It’s a way to get people invested in public infrastructure.

That was a major point of contention for people in the Catskills. If New York City was going to buy up a whole bunch of land, [people there] wanted to make sure they had access to these lands for hiking, hunting, bird watching, etc. After a lot of struggle and pushback from New York City’s side, in the last 5 to 10 years, the city has opened up a significant amount of the acreage they’ve acquired.

GG: As time goes on, and as areas in and outside of New York City become more congested, these areas will presumably remain an important connection to nature?

DS: People may look at the system differently in 2013, than they did in 1980, or 2050. We also need to be careful not to say the Catskills are one entity. There are divides depending on which particular reservoir, which region you’re talking about. There are a lot of nuances. Part of the story is definitely downstate / upstate. But even within that, there are divides. Cannonsville is the example par excellence. The city just assumed it was like the Pepacton Reservoir. Well, it wasn’t. There was a lot more agriculture. It was a different topography. It got a lot more polluted. To the city person, everything looks the same. [But] one farm can be as different from the next farm as black and white.

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