FOR decades New York City residents have been proud of their tap water -- a fluid that wins taste tests and gets shipped out of state to bakers who want to produce ''real New York bagels.''
But now this resource that residents have long taken for granted is quietly emerging as one of the biggest problems facing the city in the future.
The Big Apple is under growing pressure to ensure the future purity of its drinking supply, which comes from a watershed larger than the state of Rhode Island in upstate New York.
How it resolves the problem -- or doesn't -- could hold lessons for other cities. It may also exacerbate longstanding among rivalries upstate-downstate residents.
''It is crunch time,'' says Marilyn Gelber, the city's commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). She adds, ''New York City will not become a third world country in the next century because we failed to protect our drinking water.''
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants New York City to implement tough new regulations on land use in watershed area. The watershed's woes include development, outdated sewage plants that empty into the water supply, agricultural and storm-drain runoff and a relaxed attitude toward polluters.
The new regulations must be approved by the State Department of Health by April 15 to meet an EPA deadline.
It is not yet clear what Gov. George Pataki will do about the proposed regulations. He says he is sympathetic to the city but is also concerned about economic development in the Catskill area.
Repairs aren't cheap
The stakes are huge. If the city rules don't meet EPA standards, New York City may be forced to construct a water filtration plant that could cost up to $8 billion to build and $300 million per year to operate. One estimate says water bills in the city could double, forcing landlords to abandon 50,000 marginal housing units.
Environmentalists and city officials believe the cheapest way to solve the problem is by maintaining a clean watershed. ''It's cheaper to do engineering up the line,'' says Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer with the Hudson Riverkeeper Fund, an environmental group in Garrison, N.Y.
One of the city's solutions is to buy 80,000 to 90,000 acres of land around the watershed. Currently New York City only owns 2 percent of the land around its reservoirs. ''What is unusual is for a supplier to have so little control over the property'' around its reservoirs, Ms. Gelber says. But last month, Pataki proposed making it more difficult for the city to buy the land.
Tight regulation around the watershed is encouraged by the federal EPA. ''We have found prevention is often cheaper than treating the water once pollution has occurred,'' says Peter Cook, a deputy director at the EPA in Washington. Other major cities in the US that still have unfiltered water supplies include: Seattle and Tacoma, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Boston; and part of San Francisco.
The issue of clean drinking water came to the national consciousness two years ago when 100 people died and 400,000 became ill in Milwaukee after a parasite infested the water which goes through the city's filters.
''A well-run filtration system can knock it out, but if a system is so contaminated, it's tough,'' says Diane Vandehei, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies in Washington.
Watershed protection is also in dispute in Congress where the Republicans would like to remove the federal protection of some wetlands. ''Right now we count on the federal protection,'' says Gelber. The bill currently includes $3 billion which can be used in part for watershed protection.
In New York, the level of rhetoric about the water supply is high. In some ways it has become a classic ''upstate-downstate'' battle. At a hearing in the city, environmentalists and city residents -- including actress Susan Sarandon -- showed up to ask for tough regulations around the watershed.
Upstate residents balk
Some upstate residents, however, have little sympathy for the city. ''The city should bite the bullet and build a filtration plant,'' says Susan Ihlo who now runs a restaurant in Margaretville.
The residents of such Catskill towns such as Hunter and Delhi view the city's new regulations, which govern everthing from septic tanks to paring lots angle as an attempt to stifle future economic growth and depopulate the region.
''We believe it is the unarticulated goal of many of the environmental extremists to cause a depopulation of the watershed,'' says Anthony Bucca, vice chairman of the Coalition of Watershed Communities.
The group has suggested the city give the watershed region $800 million for nonpolluting economic development projects. The city has offered $62 million. Gelber is convinced the city can work with the watershed communities.
For example, 150 farmers have now signed up to work with a city sponsored ''best management practices'' programs that deals with waste water and runoff.