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2018-02-06 / Opinion

The Catskills, NYC and the FAD — The Balance of Clean Water with Local Sustainability

By Pete D. Lopez

There is virtually nothing more important than protecting our drinking water.

Similarly, self determination and community sustainability are also central to our very existence.

In the Catskills, finding a balance between these principles remains an important challenge as the City of New York works with local communities to continue its mission to provide drinking water to its residents.

For New York City, this meant over a century of engagement with people in the watershed. Unprecedented special authority granted by New York State enabled the city to acquire lands and construct a mammoth system of interconnected reservoirs and tunnels in the Catskill Mountains to serve as New York City’s primary source of drinking water.

This 100-year history has not been without controversy, necessitating a delicate balance between the need for clean, abundant water by the city with the desire of the Catskill communities to be sustainable, preserving their autonomy and way of life.

This tension has magnified over the last quarter century with requirements under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which requires the filtration of surface drinking water supplies unless specific conditions can be met.

For New York City, the financial consequences of filtering over a billion gallons of water a day are staggering – $10 billion in the design and construction of required filtration equipment and potentially hundreds of millions more a year to operate and maintain the system.

The alternative was the development of a Filtration Avoidance Determination (FAD), which is a product of state, federal, and local stakeholders that, among other items, uses a comprehensive regulatory framework to limit actions of the people in the watershed, while simultaneously providing funding for local projects that protect water quality.

Since its inception in January of 1993 to the current day, the NYC FAD has been a grand experiment – conducted at a scale and level of intensity unmatched anywhere across the nation.

On Dec. 28, 2017, under my signature, EPA joined with the NYS Department of Health to provide a ten-year extension of the FAD. I recognize that the FAD is intended to be a comprehensive roadmap that lays out actions that must be taken to continue to protect the water at its source – in Delaware, Greene, Schoharie, Sullivan and Ulster Counties. Just as important, I recognize it is intended to respond to the very real impacts the water quality protections have on the people who live, work and raise their families in the watershed.

While approved for the next ten years, the FAD is a living document. With a scheduled mid-term review, stakeholders and agencies alike must continue to ensure the balancing of environmental objectives with the opportunity for achieving other important socioeconomic goals for communities located within the Watershed.

I personally see opportunities for strengthening the balance. For example, I believe New York City’s Land Acquisition Program - a longstanding, core element of the FAD - should be revisited. As someone who understands many of the challenges of the FAD, I am keenly interested in exploring the current “protectiveness” of existing lands controlled by New York City and New York State and the need for continued land acquisition.

In my decades of work with the city and the people of the Catskills, I have found reasoned partners. In my role as EPA Regional Administrator, I will continue advancing thoughtful conversations that ensure that we keep the balance between the needs of New York City and watershed communities.

Pete Lopez is the Regional Administrator of EPA Region 2, which includes New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and eight federally recognized Indian Nations.

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