Issue of the Week

ROAD EXPANSION THREATENS NYC DRINKING WATER SUPPLY

by Dan Klotz

The drinking water for almost nine million people flows through the Kensico Reservoir in central Westchester County. Clean water from New York City's Catskill and Delaware reservoir systems collects in the Kensico before moving to the faucets of Westchester and New York City residents. In recent years, New York City has taken steps to insure the water's purity by implementing watershed protection mechanisms to avoid building a multibillion-dollar filtration plant to safeguard our health.

But economic development in the Kensico's small watershed - 9.9 square miles - threatens our health and may necessitate the enormous expenditure of filtration, for which New York City and Westchester taxpayers will pay a price. At the very least, the development will result in more suburban sprawl with its accompanying strip malls, traffic congestion and erosion of the Westchester quality of life. But the pollution that development will generate will head straight into the Kensico.

In 1997, the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) released plans to widen Route 120 where it runs alongside the Kensico Reservoir, improve two Interstate 684 exits, and improve the intersections of Routes 120 and 22. The current price tag is currently projected at $53 million. The rationale? Improve roadway safety and encourage economic expansion by accommodating future commercial and residential development along the Route 120 corridor.

The question of why this critical piece of land needs to be developed has gone unanswered. But can the answer outweigh the risks? Although New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi recently spoke out against the proposed expansion, the voice of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection has been conspicuous in its absence. In its stead, environmental organizations like the Federated Conservationists of Westchester County, Inc., the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Croton Watershed Clean Water Coalition have all demanded the answers.

The land surrounding a body of water plays a vital role in maintaining its purity. Wetlands and woodlands can act as a buffer around our reservoirs, naturally filtering out pollutants and waste products from the water that flows into these reservoirs. Asphalt and concrete, on the other hand, are impermeable surfaces. Roads not only impede this filtering, but automobile traffic provides additional pollutants for our reservoirs. To double the width of Route 120, an impermeable surface, is bad enough. But the increase in automobile traffic will increase the pollution entering the Kensico. And the developments facilitated by the widened road will also pollute the reservoir.

Maintaining the quality of the watershed and its natural systems is the joint obligation of federal, state, city and local regulators. The plan to enlarge Route 120 is a test for them all. Are they serious about maintaining filtration avoidance or just marking time until conditions compel a Catskill-Delaware filtration behemoth?

Preventing any future development from occurring should not be ruled out. Westchester County is presently revising its County Airport Master Plan. Despite pressure from the Westchester Chamber of Commerce and the Westchester Convention and Visitors Bureau, County Executive Andy Spano as well as the bipartisan County Legislature have insisted on not expanding the airport.

If new residential and commercial development occurs in the Kensico watershed, watershed protection efforts in the Catskill and Delaware watersheds will accomplish nothing. It does not matter how clean the water is when it leaves upstate reservoirs; once that water mingles with the biological and chemical wastes that will wash into the Kensico it will not be safe for drinking.

This project must be changed to prevent the very real adverse consequences that could occur. NYS DOT, which has stated a willingness to make adjustments, added a $12 million storm-water management element to the original plans for Route 120. This drainage element, which should be implemented regardless of expansion, will not completely address the additional pollutants that new development will produce. DOT needs to explore other roadway improvement alternatives that would have much less significant impacts on the environment. Such a plan would include roadway improvements to ameliorate unsafe road conditions as well as mass transportation alternatives for Westchester County.

Dan Klotz is the Director of Communications at the New York League of Conservation Voters