Catskill Watershed Protection Plan

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Catskill Watershed Protection Plan

New York City has long been proud of its excellent municipal drinking water. Approximately 90% of that water comes from the Catskill/Delaware Watershed , which covers about 1,900 square miles (nearly 5,000 square kilometers) of rugged, densely forested land north of the city and west of the Hudson River . Stored in six hard-rock reservoirs and transported through enormous underground tunnels, the city water is outstanding for so large an urban area. Yielding 1.2 billion gal (450,000 cubic meters) per day, and serving more than 9 million people, this is the largest surface water storage and supply complex in the world. As the metropolitan agglomeration has expended, however, people have moved into the area around the Catskill Forest Preserve, and water quality is not as high as it was a century ago.

When the 1986 U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act mandated filtration of all public surface water systems, the city was faced with building an $8 billion water treatment plant that would cost up to $500 million per year to operate. In 1989, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled that the city could avoid filtration if it could meet certain minimum standards for microbial contaminants such as bacteria, viruses, and protozoan parasites . In an attempt to limit pathogens and nutrients contaminating surface water and to avoid the enormous cost of filtration, the city proposed land-use regulations for the five counties (Green, Ulster, Sullivan, Schoharie, and Delaware) in the Catskill/Delaware watershed from which it draws most of its water.

With a population of 50,000 people, the private land within the 200 square mi (520 square km) watershed is mostly devoted to forestry and small dairy farms, neither of which are highly profitable. Among the changes the city called for was elimination of storm water runoff from barnyards, feedlots , or grazing areas into watersheds. In addition, farmers would be required to reduce erosion and surface runoff from crop fields and logging operations. Property owners objected strenuously to what they regarded as onerous burdens that would cost enough to put many of them out of business. They also bristled at having the huge megalopolis impose rules on them. It looked like a long and bitter battle would be fought through the courts and the state legislature.

To avoid confrontation, a joint urban/rural task force was set up to see if a compromise could be reached, and to propose alternative solutions to protect both the water supply and the long-term viability of agriculture in the region. The task force agreed that agriculture is the "preferred land use" on private land, and that agriculture has "significant present and future environmental benefits." In addition, the task force proposed a voluntary, locally developed and administered program of "whole farm planning and best management approaches" very similar to ecosystem-based, adaptive management .

This grass-roots program, financed mainly by the city, but administered by local farmers themselves, attempts to educate landowners, and provides alternative marketing opportunities that help protect the watershed. Economic incentives are offered to encourage farmers and foresters to protect the water supply. Collecting feedlot and barnyard runoff in infiltration ponds together with solid conservation practices such as terracing , contour plowing , strip farming, leaving crop residue on fields, ground cover on waterways, and cultivation of perennial crops such as orchards and sugar-bush have significantly improved watershed water quality. As of 1999, about 400 farmersclose to the 85% participation goalhave signed up for the program. The cost, so far, to the city has been about $50 millionor less than 1% of constructing a treatment plant.

In addition to saving billions of dollars, this innovative program has helped create good will between the city and its neighbors. It has shown that upstream cleanup, prevention, and protection are cheaper and more effective than treating water after it's dirty. Farmers have learned they can be part of the solution, not just part of the problem. This experiment serves as an excellent example of how watershed planning through cooperation is effective when local people are given a voice and encouraged to participate.

[William P. Cunningham Ph.D. ]



About the CWC. July 2002. Catskill Watershed Corporation. [cited July 9, 2002]. <>.

New York City Watershed Agreement. New York Public Interest Group. [cited July 9, 2002]. agreement.html.

New York City watershed whole farm programme. March 1999. United Nations Sustainable Development Programme. [cited July 9, 2002]. <>.


Catskill Watershed Corporation, PO Box 569 Main St., Margaretville, NY USA 12455 (845) 586-1400, Fax: (845)586-1401, Toll Free: (877) 928-7433, Email: [email protected],