Energy & Environment

Working on Watersheds

Cleaning up rural riverbeds that feed water to cities makes fiscal and political sense.
by | December 2001

Margaretville is a small bucolic hamlet, tucked into New York State's Catskill Mountain region. It wouldn't seem to have much in common with New York City, the megalopolis lying 100 miles to its south. Yet the two localities share something of exceptional value: They both depend on the same network of streams and rivers for drinking water. Margaretville, along with other small, struggling upstate New York towns, sits right in the midst of the watershed that supplies 90 percent of the water that millions of people in New York City and its suburbs drink every day.

Until five years ago, neither New York City nor the towns in the five counties that are in the 1,600-square-mile watershed region were happy with that circumstance. New York City officials worried that upstate farms and the area's widespread use of septic tanks were polluting the five reservoirs within the watershed that the city owns. Catskill residents feared the downstate powerhouse could try to protect its water by taking over their lands and cutting off any chance of economic growth.

But now, overcoming a century of distrust, some of New York State's most impoverished rural communities are working hand in hand with one of the nation's wealthiest urban centers. Together, they have developed a comprehensive plan to safeguard the watershed that's crucial to their future. New York City is paying the towns and counties $240 million to build sewage treatment plants, replace leaky septic tanks and invest in environmentally sustainable economic growth. That, in turn, will save New York City water customers $5 billion or more. With the reservoirs kept in a pristine condition, the city won't have to build a new plant to filter its Catskill water. Compared with relying solely on expensive water treatment technology, "it's more cost effective to work with the people who live in the watershed," says Alan Rosa, the former Middletown, New York, town supervisor who negotiated the deal with New York City.

Just like New York, Boston, too, is reaping rewards from cleaning up its watershed. Boston will not have to install a $180 million filtration system because Massachusetts' ambitious watershed programs have protected the city's reservoirs sufficiently.

Even for communities that must filter contaminants, protecting the watershed provides valuable backup protection against health- threatening contamination. "It's a darn good model," says Rutherford H. Platt, a University of Massachusetts geographer who helped assess New York City's Catskill program. "Even communities and private water utilities that already filter their water need to be concerned about watershed protection."

Many counties and municipal governments are now exploring watershed strategies, both to make sure that they'll control adequate supplies and to keep what they have as pure as possible. The problem, says Ellen Reckhow, a Durham County, North Carolina, commissioner, is that "watersheds don't end at political boundaries, and to protect our drinking water supplies, we have to work with other jurisdictions." Here is how some metropolitan areas are cooperating regionally to protect their watersheds.


Philadelphia takes its water from the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. "We are downstream of everybody," says Howard Neukrug, the director of the watershed office that the city water department set up three years ago to work on region-wide protection strategies.

The program Neukrug heads up is ambitious. Instead of concentrating government resources on each separate sewage-outfall or water- collection line, the program looks at the whole system--from what flows through the tap in Philadelphia households to whether people living upstream can swim and fish in the water. "Turbidity, algae growth, nutrients, Cryptosporidium, giardia--to us, they're all part of the same thing," Neukrug says.

But Philadelphia can't get where it wants to go on its own. The 130- mile Schuylkill River system, for instance, drains a 1,900-square-mile watershed that takes in parts of 10 southeastern Pennsylvania counties and the cities of Reading, Pottstown and Phoenixville. So, to conduct the source-water study that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act demands, the city water agency is spearheading a multi-jurisdictional study of the entire watershed. Private suburban water utilities are also sharing the lead, but Philadelphia water officials are actively reaching out to smaller cities, county governments and citizens' groups that are concerned about declining water quality along their smaller streams and creeks.

Schuylkill contaminants come from many sources, including farms, golf courses, paved streets, junkyards, tire-disposal sites and old coal mines in the upper basin. If suburban expansion keeps encroaching onto the Schuylkill's upland tributaries, "you will see them turned into sewers, literally," Neukrug says.

While Philadelphia officials worry that growth could befoul the city's water sources, that isn't necessarily what worries its watershed partners. Upstream neighbors are more directly concerned that pollutants are ruining the waters they'd like to swim and fish in. "There's litter, there's no access to the stream and the banks are steep and eroded," Neukrug says.

Taking those concerns into account, the city's source-water study has identified many confluent interests. A hundred miles north of Philadelphia, for example, the nonprofit Berks County Conservancy has been working to protect fish and wildlife habitat along streams feeding the Blue Marsh Lake reservoir in the upper Schuylkill watershed. Philadelphia officials concluded that land protection efforts were also safeguarding a lake that supplies 25 percent of the water it supplies to 1.5 million Philadelphia residents. So Philadelphia is helping the conservancy develop an Internet site to keep supporters informed about water-quality issues. "As the city realized that what we're doing will benefit them, they've offered us access to resources we don't have," says Joseph Hoffman, the conservancy's director.

Both Neukrug and Hoffman acknowledge that cooperation might become harder after the study is done and officials start working on actually controlling pollutants. Down the road, however, watershed protection could pay off for Philadelphia fiscally: The city may be able to keep Cryptosporidium under control without resorting to expensive technological fixes.


Federal water-quality laws are driving most states to encourage local governments and stakeholders to organize their own joint watershed- protection strategies. But some states are also fashioning watershed programs to help cope with chronic water shortages. That's the case in both Georgia and Washington State, where Atlanta and Seattle, respectively, are demanding ever-increasing shares of water to meet the needs of their burgeoning populations. Officials in both states are prodding their fast-growing cities, as well as nearby counties, to get to work on regional watershed management.

Earlier this year, the Georgia legislature adopted a law that will force Atlanta and surrounding counties to agree on--and then abide by- -a comprehensive regional water plan. The problem in Georgia stems in part from an ongoing drought. State political leaders, including Governor Roy Barnes and members of Atlanta's business community, recognize that north Georgia's limited water supply can't sustain the metropolitan area's growth much longer. In addition, Georgia is also trying to cope with court-ordered deadlines for enforcing contaminant limits.

To meet these demands, the legislature set up a 16-county Metropolitan North Georgia Water District to develop a watershed strategy for Atlanta and its fast-growing suburban area within three years. The law requires the district's board to come up with a comprehensive plan for sewage treatment, stormwater management, non- point runoff controls, water conservation and drinking water quality. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division must approve the district's plan, and it will have power to withhold state financial assistance for new or expanded sewage treatment and other facilities to any local government that backs out of the agreement.

In Washington State, watershed planning isn't mandatory and the issues are slightly different, although they also stem from concerns about supplying water to a rapidly expanding metropolitan area-- Seattle and Tacoma. More specifically, legislators from agricultural regions in eastern Washington fear that the vote-rich Puget Sound region could, under the state's water laws, eventually demand water that farmers now use for irrigation. Also, the listing of salmon under the federal Endangered Species Act is forcing federal and state officials to figure out how to leave more water flowing downstream for migrating fish. Meanwhile, the state government has fallen years behind in recording water-rights transfers, making it difficult for local governments or industry to acquire sure supplies.

The state's 1998 watershed-planning law designates 62 watershed areas and provides grants for inventorying what water's available and deciding how to protect and use it. The law gives each resource area's largest county, city or water utility the power to take the lead in developing a plan, with input from Native American tribes and other interests. Planning isn't required, though, and county and municipal commissions have to approve any recommended actions.

Roughly 40 regions have begun working on plans, but final conclusions aren't expected for another year. When those conclusions are put on paper, however, "that will tell people what the limits are and what the needs are, and that's when it's going to get controversial," says Joseph R. Williams, a special assistant to the state Ecology Department director.

The state agency will have to consent to plans. While state officials need to make sure water is left in stream for salmon and other wildlife, "the idea is to get the state out of the business" of allocating the rest of water resources, Williams says.


In 1904, the New York legislature gave New York City the authority to condemn private lands to build and maintain reservoirs. Catskill communities have always resented the extraordinary control those powers give the big city over their small towns' economic prospects. The city now owns the reservoir beds and shorelines, amounting to roughly 7 percent of lands in the watershed. While there was always some tension between New York City and upstate counties, local concern mounted a decade ago when New York City's Environmental Protection Department, under pressure to build a costly filtration plant, made plans for more stringent pollution controls to keep contaminated runoff from reaching the reservoirs.

City officials asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a filtration waiver and laid out ambitious plans to acquire 10,000 more watershed acres and impose stringent runoff-control measures. A coalition of 30 watershed towns responded with a lawsuit to block the city's plans, contending it shifted the burden of protecting the city's water to the region's small, impoverished communities. In 1995, however, New York State officials negotiated a watershed settlement between the city and the Catskill communities.

In essence, New York City agreed to invest money to bolster its upstate neighbors' economies and control contaminants that threatened reservoir water quality. In return, the towns threw their support behind the city's request for waiving the federal filtration requirement. Embodied in a 1997 memorandum of understanding signed by U.S. EPA, the state, the city, towns and local environmental organizations, the deal set in motion a number of components:

  • The city committed to acquiring 355,000 acres, at a cost of $250 million, from owners who are willing to sell. The city agreed it wouldn't resort to eminent domain authority. It is buying conservation easements as well as outright ownership and paying local taxes on its holdings.
  • Tightened regulations limit where landfills, petroleum storage tanks, hazardous wastes and pesticide-handling facilities will be located.
  • Stringent standards are set for sewage treatment plants, septic tanks and stormwater-control systems. No buildings, paved roads or parking lots will be built within 100 feet of any stream or wetland or 300 feet of a reservoir.
  • The city funds a $35 million agricultural program that's helping 319 farmers finance improved soil management and pesticide practices to limit polluted runoff.
  • A nonprofit Catskill Watershed Corp. administers $240 million that the city is contributing to fund sewage upgrades, septic tank repairs and placement, stormwater-control measures, better storage of road salt and sand, and stream-corridor rehabilitation projects.

For its part, U.S. EPA exempted the city from filtering the Catskill supply for five years, until the end of 2002. EPA will review the waiver next year.

For the upstate towns, the agreement is turning into what some regard as an economic lifesaver. Local businesses are selling new sewer pipes and septic tanks, and local workers install them. Home values have climbed as retirees move in, along with telecommuters who are shifting businesses from the city. "We have a labor shortage now because everybody is working," says Alan Rosa, the former Town of Middletown supervisor who now directs the Catskill Watershed Corp. "If you manage water quality for the environment, that is economic development for the watershed region."


Federal water-quality laws passed within the past decade have been forcing regulators at all levels of government to think about new strategies.

  • The federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires municipal agencies to survey the health of the upland streams and connected groundwater aquifers where they draw supplies and to invest in treatment technologies to remove pathogens and limit the toxic byproducts that form when water is disinfected with chlorine.
  • The federal Clean Water Act is forcing cities and counties to install pipes for collecting and disposing of stormwater that washes pollutants off city landscapes.
  • Recent court rulings demand that state officials speed up the act of determining and enforcing contaminant limits. These are limits that the federal Clean Water Act mandates to make the nation's streams and lakes safe to swim and fish in once again.


Several states and cooperating localities are setting effluent programs in motion to deal with stubborn water-quality problems.

  • Since 1992, North Carolina sewage treatment plants along the Tar- Pamlico River have been financing agricultural runoff controls as a cheaper alternative to installing new technology to meet total nutrient-discharge limits in the river.
  • Maryland is developing a statewide trading program to comply with the state's obligation to curtail pollutants under the Chesapeake Bay agreement with neighboring states.
  • Variations of effluent trading are being conducted to limit damage to Long Island Sound, Tampa Bay, Colorado reservoirs, Wisconsin's Fox River, Nevada's Truckee River, Idaho's Boise River and New Jersey's Passaic Valley.
  • In Michigan, officials in Kalamazoo County and Kalamazoo city, as wel as federal and state regulators, the Michigan Farm Bureau, paper companies and environmental groups have a trading demonstration project that lets point sources finance voluntary non-point phosphorus reductions flowing into Lake Allegan. Building on that effort, Michigan's Environmental Quality Department is developing a statewide water-quality trading program.
  • Other Midwest state agencies, U.S. EPA officials, the National Wildlife Federation, water-quality consultants and local watershed organizations have organized a Great Lakes Trading Network to examine the potential for expanding effluent trading in the region.
  • World Resources Institute economist Paul Faeth examined trading programs in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota watersheds and concluded they were curtailing nutrient loads at much less cost than conventional point-source regulation.


There's an ongoing shift away from centralized federal regulation toward "place-based" environmental protection run by state and local leaders. Watershed management will be an essential component of that.

Regional watershed programs are still gearing up, making it too early to determine how effectively they'll accomplish their goals. "The question is, `How much water quality is going to improve?' The answer is, `I don't know,' " says Shelley Metzenbaum, a former Massachusetts and U.S. EPA official.

One case that Metzenbaum studied--the Boston-Massachusetts Charles River watershed cleanup--has a track record. Metzenbaum points to what she considers the essential components of this successful watershed cleanup:

  • A "bite-sized" region: A 10-mile stretch of river "made the goal feel more achievable and invited a strong personal connection" from citizens.
  • Clear and simple goals that the public can understand: "Nobody ever thought the Charles would be swimmable again."
  • Regular and simple progress reports available to the public: "Basically, you create your own pressure mechanism" to encourage follow-through.
  • Fresh and frequent measures for multiple goals: monthly water- quality measurements every two miles that "get the measurements to where people need them.

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