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Do you drink New York City’s world-renowned tap water?

Ashokan Reservoir

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Ashokan Reservoir

Photo: John Parker / Riverkeeper

See what is being done to protect it

The New York State Department of Health will soon determine whether New York City’s water supply may remain unfiltered for the next decade. Roughly 90% of the the City’s water comes from a 1,600 square mile watershed in the Catskill Mountains. From there, roughly one billion gallons per day are piped through a series of gravity-fed aqueducts and reservoirs to serve nine million consumers in the City and Lower Hudson Valley. The pristine water is never filtered but instead treated with ultraviolet light and chlorine to remove disease-causing pathogens.

As required by the Safe Drinking Water Act, all public drinking water systems serving over 10,000 people must be filtered unless the source water meets stringent criteria for water quality and watershed protection. For almost 18 years, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection has implemented a Long-Term Watershed Protection Program, comprised of a number initiatives designed to maintain the quality of the water at its source, thereby avoiding $10 billion in filtration plant construction costs. New York is one of only five large cities in the country with drinking water of such high quality that it is not required to filter.

Every five years, the Department of Environmental Protection updates its Long-Term Watershed Protection Program, and the State Health Department assesses whether that plan will be sufficient to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act water quality standards. Upon acceptance of the plan, the Health Department may issue what is called a Filtration Avoidance Determination, which sets binding terms with which New York City must comply in lieu of filtration. This December, the City will submit its most recently revised Long-Term Watershed Protection Program, and in 2017 the Health Department will determine whether to issue a new Filtration Avoidance Determination. The Health Department recently held four public hearings on the City’s forthcoming application and is accepting written recommendations at this preliminary stage. Riverkeeper submitted a comment letter highlighting our concerns related to continued funding of programs that have already proven successful as well as the need to strengthen the Health Department’s regulatory control over all decisions related to the Filtration Avoidance Determination.

Among the most successful initiatives in the Long-Term Watershed Protection Program, incorporated as required deliverables under the current Filtration Avoidance Determination, are the Septic System Rehabilitation and Replacement Program and the Land Acquisition Program. To date, the Septic System Rehabilitation and Replacement Program has reimbursed over 4,500 homeowners for the cost of repairing systems that were failing or likely to fail, successfully keeping dangerous pathogens and nutrients out of the surface water supply. These efforts must continue uninterrupted lest septic systems be allowed to fail and undo these significant investments in water quality protection.

Under the Land Acquisition Program, the Department of Environmental Protection has protected 113,595 acres with another 24,667 acres of farm easements secured by the Watershed Agricultural Council. “Overall, the City and State now protect 38% of lands in the Catskill/Delaware system.” Most experts—including the Department of Environmental Protection, the Health Department, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and National Academy of Sciences—believe that land conservation is the most effective way to protect water quality. New York now stands alone as the only major American city with an unfiltered drinking water supply where fewer than 50% of its watershed lands are protected in perpetuity. Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland all own or control virtually their entire watersheds. And Boston has more than 50% of its Quabbin Reservoir watershed lands under protective ownership or control. To ensure sufficient protection in the future, especially given the potential for more intense and frequent storm events due to climate change, it is critical that the Department of Environmental Protection continue to increase the area of protected lands upstate. The Department should target those lands with sensitive resources such as wetlands and riparian buffers.

While the Long-Term Watershed Protection Program has been a great success due to the efforts of the Department of Environmental Protection and its numerous partner agencies, it could be made stronger by enhancing the Health Department’s oversight over Filtration Avoidance Determination deliverables and determinations. For instance, despite clear deadlines, the Riparian Buffer Program—an additional tool that would focus land acquisition efforts on land most directly related to watercourses, which is required as part of the current Filtration Avoidance Determination—has failed to get off the ground. And due in part to unclear deadlines, two expert panel studies that would help the Department of Environmental Protection assess effectiveness of its various programs have lagged in the City’s contracting and funding processes. The Health Department could ensure all programs and studies are implemented on time by setting firm deadlines with financial penalties for noncompliance. Moreover, the Health Department should take control over the substantive direction of each program by retaining responsibility for all final determinations. For instance, although the Department of Environmental Protection input in each decision is important, the Health Department should serve as lead agency for environmental review of the Filtration Avoidance Determination and determine whether programs need to be modified.

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