New York City vs. Catskill Watershed Residents

Since 1840, New York City has been drawing water through an aqueduct from the Croton River north of the city. With an increase in population over the years the demand for water became greater. As a result, New York City needed to expand the reservoir system. Early in the twentieth century New York bought land two hundred miles north of the city in the Catskill watershed. The Ashokan Reservoir was constructed along with a 92 mile aqueduct to transport the water to New York City. In 1917 another expansion was required. This time the Schoharie Reservoir was built and an eighteen mile tunnel to link the Schoharie to the Ashokan Reservoir. Today, the Croton Reservoir supplies New York City with ten percent of its water, the Ashokan supplies fifty percent and the Schoharie provides the remaining forty percent.

As the northern-most reservoir in the three-reservoir system, the Schoharie is continually supplied with water from the Schoharie Creek atop Twin Mountain in the Catskills. Schoharie Creek flows west and north for 85 miles, emptying into the Mohawk River. This stream provides prime trout fishing, hydropower for the New York Authority and Blenheim-Gilboa electric generators, water to make snow at Hunter Mountain Ski Resort and water for New York City.

Hunter Mountain Ski Resort

Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, a ski resort in the town of Hunter, is one of the biggest contributors to the local economy bringing in about $50 million of business to the area each year. The watershed proposal by the state would require mandatory filtration of all surface waters that do not meet EPA standards of purity. If New York City does not build a filtration plant then the town of Hunter will be required to build a public and private sewage system which would include expensive fine filtering treatment of all waste water.

The combined costs of building a filtering treatment facility and yearly maintenance would drastically hinder the local economy. Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl would see limited or no expansion in the near future and subsequently would not be able to compete with other neighboring ski resorts. As Orville Slutzky, the ski center’s general manager, said, “What they want to do is bring about zero growth, and you can’t live with zero growth in today’s world.” The real-estate market would also be affected. The resort would not be capable of building additional condominiums and vacationers would not seek sights for their second homes on a mountain which is falling behind.

The Federal Act Clean Water Act of 1972 established water quality standards and guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Water designated for human consumption could not fall below these EPA guidelines. In 1991, in order to comply with these water quality standards New York City began stricter regulation of land use practices in the Catskill watershed, to protect the water coming from the Catskills. The proposed regulations created by New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection included prior approval for sewer disposal systems, banning of new septic systems near streams that feed Catskill reservoirs and restrictions on manure and artificial fertilizer and pesticide use on Catskill farms near the streams. In addition, a $100,000 manure storage facility would have to be built. Farmers would also have to control rainwater run-off on lands located within 500 to 1,000 feet of any stream which feeds into the Schoharie Creek and Reservoir.

The alternative to putting restrictions on the farmers in the watershed regions would be to require New York City to build a treatment and filtration plant. This proposed plant would cost the city $3 to $8 billion to construct with an additional annual maintenance cost of $2 to $4 million. Therefore, there is great incentive for New York City to create and enforce watershed regulations.

Which group is responsible for maintaining water quality; the watershed residents or New York City? As Dwight Brown, spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau said, “[The farmers] feel, if the city avoids filtration, you can’t put the cost of that avoidance on the people of the Catskills. They look at it as a New York City problem.”

The Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act could order the city to build a filtration plant. New York City hopes in the meantime to acquire about 80,000 acres of the watershed to serve as a pollution buffer. The city is looking to either purchase the land or have it donated, with the agreement that this land will be used solely for conservation purposes. It is probable, however, that a filtration plant will have to be built in the future regardless of any conservation efforts.

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