The NYC Watershed Protection Program
The NYC Watershed Protection Program is working well but now must change to meet the coming challenges climate change will present, according to a recent evaluation by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS).
The city’s drinking water system supplies about 1 billion gallons of water a day to over 8.5 million people in New York City and about 1 million people living in nearby Westchester, Putnam, Ulster, and Orange counties (nearly half the population of New York State). The system includes 19 reservoirs and three lakes with a storage capacity of 580 billion gallons. The city’s Watershed Protection Program is intended to maintain and enhance the high quality of these surface water sources.
Since 1997, the city has spent more than $2.5 billion on source water protection to avoid construction of a drinking water filtration plant that could cost as much as $10 billion. New York City is the largest municipal water system to have received and maintained a waiver from filtration. To achieve the waiver, the city takes steps such as conservation land purchases and erosion control measure on streams within the watershed.
Those measures have helped with pathogen and turbidity control. In fact, according to Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis and a member of the evaluation panel that issued the report, “It’s a remarkable success,” however, “climate change presents new challenges as well.”
The report recommends that the city reallocate funding as it looks to future water quality impacts. In the past, controlling pathogens was a major objective. Now, as stronger storms dump precipitation more intensely into the system, turbidity is a looming concern, along with phosphorus, algae and increasing heat. These items will all be under consideration in the next round of state evaluations for the filtration exemption.