NEW YORK — SPILLING down from the Catskill Mountains through an intricate system of aqueducts and reservoirs, the Big Apple's drinking water has long rated top marks for taste and quality.
Yet keeping the quality high is evolving into a major challenge for New York City. Two-thirds of the 2,000-square-mile watershed area north of the city is privately owned. Development pressures are strong. Some counties threaten lawsuits.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants New York to build a large, expensive water-filtration plant.
New York already is slated to build one plant in the Bronx to filter about 10 percent of the city's drinking water, which comes from the densely populated Croton watershed area. The EPA-proposed second plant to cover the other 90 percent would cost at least $6 billion to build and $300 million to maintain. Most major cities have such filtration systems. San Francisco recently decided to build one, though its drinking water comes from Yosemite National Park.
New York City officials, supported by environmentalists, regional planners, and business interests, are fighting the demand. Water rates could soar
Officials say the cost would more than double already-high home water rates. They could better attack the problem more cheaply through tighter land-use rules and land purchases. They cite the recent experience of Milwaukee - where microbes that scientists associate with public health problems survived the city's filtration system - as proof that filtering is no magic answer. Yet developers, the city says, would point to the plant as an easy excuse for doing whatever they want in the watershed area.
So far, the EPA is listening. In return for winning a one-year waiver on building the new plant, New York City environmental officials are scrambling to meet 60 stringent conditions set by the agency. Carrying very specific deadlines, they range from reporting requirements to land acquisitions. The city hopes to win a second EPA reprieve by the end of this year. "We're doing as much as we can within budget and personnel constraints," says Ian Michaels, spokesman for the city's Department of Environmental
Environmentalists, however, are concerned that the city will miss a June 30 deadline set by the EPA to start the process of buying $15 million worth of watershed land. "They haven't bought or secured an option on any land," says David Gordon, a lawyer with the Hudson Riverkeeper Fund.
The EPA is likely to wait until the end of the year to assess New York's progress. Yet city officials were not cheered when a blue-ribbon panel of experts tapped by the EPA strongly recommended just two months ago in a report that New York be required to filter water from its Catskill/Delaware supply system. Environmental measures
Mr. Gordon credits the city for making a major effort to preserve the watershed. The city is updating its 1953 watershed-protection rules and has filed some 25 lawsuits against polluters for violation of federal clean-water laws. Most of those charged are sewage-treatment-plant operators. The city has also begun new cooperative efforts to work with area farmers and the two-year-old Coalition of Watershed Towns.
"The city has been doing a lot to try to figure out how to play a friendly and constructive role in the watershed," says John Feingold, director of the New York City watershed program for the civic, nonprofit Regional Plan Association.
Yet Gordon's Hudson Riverkeeper Fund wants the Big Apple to move faster and favors tougher federal and state regulation. "We really need the federal government to come out in favor of watershed protection and land-use control," he says.
"In the major portion of the [watershed] system, the water is still very clean ... and it's not too late to save it," says Peter Bower, an environmental scientist at Barnard College who terms New York's water a "crown jewel." State and city pollution laws need to be revamped and enforced, he says. Particularly needed, in his view, are programs to upgrade or relocate sewage-treatment plants and to improve farming practices so nutrients such as phosphorous are kept out of watershed areas. "That's what's ca using the big problem," Mr. Bower says.