Nyc Lags In Plan To Protect Watershed

Attorney General Spitzer has released a report showing that New York City is already two years behind schedule in a five year plan to protect the drinking water supply for residents of the City, and parts of Westchester and Putnam Counties.

A series of reservoirs in a 2,000 square mile area of the Catskill Mountains and Northern Westchester and Putnam Counties supply the drinking water for some nine million area residents.

The Attorney General’s Office, pursuant to a joint appointment with the Governor, includes the position of the New York City Watershed Inspector General, whose mandate is to protect the City’s water supply.

In 1997, the City agreed to pay for an estimated $75 million worth of upgrades at 102 sewage treatment plants in the area that discharge pollutants into streams and creeks which flow directly into the City’s drinking water reservoirs.

"This is an important pollution prevention program and nine million area residents are depending on the City to provide them with clean drinking water," said Spitzer.

"The City is already seriously behind schedule with the upgrade program, which not only threatens the water and public health, but also runs the additional risk of City taxpayers being forced to pay billions of dollars to build a water filtration plant if this project is not completed on time."

Most areas across the country must filter their water, but New York has received a federal exemption from building a filtration plant because it agreed to the sewage treatment upgrade program and other watershed protection initiatives. The cost of building a filtration plant is estimated at six to eight billion dollars. The Environmental Protection Agency will revisit the filtration issue in 2002.

The 40 page report, prepared by the Attorney General’s Watershed Inspector General, finds that as of April, 2000, over three years since the signing of the Watershed Agreement:

  • Almost no plant has submitted even a "conceptual upgrade plan" (which precedes the development and approval of the preliminary and final upgrade plans);
  • Only slightly more than half of the plants have not yet even received approval to contract with an upgrade engineer;
  • The remaining actions, such as detailed design and actual construction, are likely to take far longer than the preliminary work that is already significantly behind schedule;
  • The delay in the upgrades has created other delays in installing new sewers in portions of the watershed area or diverting sewage out of the watershed.

The sewage plant upgrades are essential to ensure the removal of pathogens, which are disease-carrying microbes, such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia lamblia that can cause waterborne disease outbreaks, as well as other contaminants from entering the City’s drinking water supply.

The upgrades will also remove much of the phosphorus from the sewage waste water. Phosphorus pollution causes annual algae blooms in a number of the City’s drinking water reservoirs, which sets off a chain-reaction that affects water taste, odor, color and increases iron and manganese contaminants in the water system.

Moreover, the upgraded plants will have emergency backup systems to stop breakdowns that can cause the release of raw sewage into the drinking water reservoirs.

"This report rings an alarm bell for all New York City residents who deserve clean and healthy drinking water," said James M. Tierney, an Assistant Attorney General in the Environmental Protection Bureau who serves as the New York City Watershed Inspector General.

"The report recommends that City officials commit more resources and attention to ensuring that the sewage treatment plant upgrade program gets back on schedule."

A draft of the report, entitled ‘Falling Behind: A Report on the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s Program to Upgrade Waste Water Treatment Plants Within the New York City Watershed,’ was sent to the City’s D.E.P. last month for comment.

The City’s comments, and the Attorney General’s response, are included within the final report. Copies of the report are available on the Attorney General’s Office website at: