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Congress Acts to Protect New York's Water

By Ed Towns
October 11, 2004

While many know New York City as the cultural hub of the country, the financial and media capital of the world, or as "the city that never sleeps," it is also known for the exceptional purity of its water -- the champagne of drinking waters. This often comes as a surprise to visitors who did not already know this. Such quality water usually is not associated with a big city.

New York City's water supply flows from 19 upstate reservoirs, a watershed that spans more than 2,000 square miles. It covers eight counties, 60 towns, and 11 villages in the Catskill Mountain region and the Hudson River Valley. The effective protection of this essential natural resource poses an enormous challenge. I am pleased to report that Congress has just taken an important step to help protect this essential natural resource.

The effort began many years ago. To safeguard the area and the water, environmental groups in 1977 came together with New York city and state officials, upstate communities and the federal government to create the New York City Watershed Agreement. This historic accord guaranteed the continued and long-term protection of New York City's drinking water, while safeguarding the economic viability and environmental quality of the upstate communities in the watershed.

While the historic and landmark Watershed Agreement laid the groundwork for protecting the largest unfiltered drinking water supply in the country, it could only be successful if it was accompanied by an effective water quality monitoring and surveillance program. And so in 1996, Congress authorized funding for seven years for projects to protect and enhance the waters that provide New York City's drinking water. Without the commitment of federal funding, the Watershed Agreement could not have been signed or implemented.

Over the past seven years, Congress has appropriated $31 million to implement a comprehensive monitoring and surveillance program, matched equally by grant recipients. In fact, New York City and New York State have leveraged those federal funds by committing over $1.6 billion to protect the New York City drinking water supply.

Authorization for federal funding of the Watershed Agreement expired September 30, 2003, leaving its future in jeopardy. The entire New York delegation worked to solve this problem, getting behind a bill, H.R. 2771, to reauthorize the New York City Watershed Agreement at its current funding levels through 2010. The effort has been completely bipartisan and fueled by both city and upstate members. I testified, along with a member representing several upstate counties, in support of the bill during the committee process. These efforts succeeded in getting this bill passed by the House of Representatives in May, and just recently, after much delay, the legislation passed the U.S. Senate. The bill is now awaiting the president's signature to be signed into law.

This initiative is crucial to maintaining the safety of New York City's water supply as well as the economic security of upstate communities. The city must already build a filtration plant currently slated for Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx to filter the water it gets from Westchester and Putnam counties. But, without the success of the Watershed Agreement, New York City would have had to construct a far more massive water filtration plant to handle water from the Catskill Mountains area farther upstate at a cost estimated between $6 billion and $8 billion. This is money that we cannot afford and that could be put toward better use such as homeland security, education, or health care.

I am pleased that we will not have to use such funds for a filtration system now that the federal government has recommitted itself to protecting New York City's vital water supply. This shows that the New York delegation, when working together, can accomplish great things for the entire state.

Ed Towns, a Democrat, is the U.S. representative from the 10th Congressional District in Brooklyn.

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