Giuliani Looks North, Courts Upstate Votes With Watershed Dollars

Thanks to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, some strange things are happening on Jim and Joyce Gray’s farm in the Catskills. For starters, their barnyard has been paved over-one of many projects on his property paid for with city money appropriated to help preserve New York’s endangered watershed. A stone’s throw away from the barnyard, a bulldozer has cleared the way to begin laying tiles under the topsoil to divert runoff. And new fences are being erected to facilitate “smart” grazing by a herd of dairy cows. The Grays are understandably pleased with the infusion of economic help in modernizing their modest acreage.

The residents of bucolic and staunchly conservative Delaware County find themselves warming to Mr. Giuliani as of late, and their newfound affection for him is only partially owed to the tens of millions of city dollars currently being spent on economic development projects in their area. Many also approve of his increasingly laissez-faire oversight of development and other activities within the vast watershed, the ecologically sensitive area that surrounds New York’s reservoir system from the northern Catskills to the Hudson Valley.

Suddenly, people who have long considered New York City to be Gomorrah-on-Hudson have found a Gothamite they can trust.

“Mr. Giuliani is a man who says what he means and means what he says,” said Martin Donnelly, the town supervisor of Andes, N.Y. “People here have confidence that he wants to do the right thing in the watershed.”

Such praise could only delight Mr. Giuliani’s backers as they look northward in anticipation of a heated Senate race next year in which upstate voters-and an entrenched Republican infrastructure-will play a crucial role. But some of New York’s most prominent environmental and political leaders insist that Mr. Giuliani’s courtship of voters and political officials in places like Delaware County will carry a high price for his current constituents in the city.

A scathing new report from a group headed by one of the chief watershed watchdogs, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., says that a much-hyped agreement to balance preservation with development is falling apart due to politically motivated decisions and calculated inaction by the Mayor and his appointees in the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. And, The Observer has learned, Mr. Giuliani’s likely opponent in next year’s Senate race, Hillary Rodham Clinton, recently arranged to receive a personal briefing on the watershed from Mr. Kennedy, suggesting that the safety of the city’s drinking water may become an issue in next year’s campaign.

The Watershed Agreement was forged in 1997 between the city and upstate localities to protect the city’s water supply and avoid spending the $8 billion it would cost to build a filtration system. The upstate residents, concerned about their stagnant economy, were promised city money for environmentally friendly economic development in return for their acceptance of land-use restrictions. However, Mr. Kennedy’s report, entitled “Watershed for Sale,” charges that the city’s water system is close to flunking an audit by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, which could lead Washington to order construction of a filtration system at the city’s expense.

Critics like Mr. Kennedy charge that the Mayor is allowing local government bodies within the watershed region to spend millions of city dollars for discretionary development projects, like the paving over of the Gray family barnyard, while private developers within those regions continue to build projects that threaten the purity of the city’s reservoirs. For example, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which is charged with supervising the watershed, recently reversed the city’s move to tighten the regulation of building permits in the watershed’s wetlands. Critics said the department’s decision was prompted by vociferous complaints from politicians within the watershed region. The city has also been criticized for, among other things, approving development projects without making site visits and for easing restrictions on construction of septic systems on sloped surfaces, which are believed to cause dangerous runoff.

A Political Tradeoff?

“Rudolph Giuliani is trading the watershed for upstate votes,” Mr. Kennedy told The Observer . “The relationship between Giuliani and [Gov. George] Pataki is kind of cold, so other upstate Republicans are critical to his senatorial ambitions. Many politicians up there get elected by running on the issue of how they’re going to stand up to New York City, almost like Castro in Cuba. So the Mayor has had to genuflect to those interests, and the way he’s done it is by very publicly tearing pages out of the Watershed Agreement and throwing them into the river. The way things are going, when the E.P.A. review comes in two and a half years [when the agency's first major analysis is completed], the city will be hard pressed to argue that the agreement is working. They’ll have to build a filtration plant that will bankrupt the city.”

Mr. Kennedy discussed the watershed with Mrs. Clinton in his Pace University office in mid-October. According to Mr. Kennedy, they spent several hours talking about the watershed’s history and the potential threats to the city’s drinking water caused by lax enforcement of land-use restrictions. Mrs. Clinton has yet to issue a position on the watershed controversy.

The Mayor’s office did not return calls for comment.

Some officials involved in the implementation of the Watershed Agreement have said the Mayor’s compromises are necessary in places like Delaware County, where many residents resent any restrictions of their relatively modest residential and commercial development. (They draw firm distinctions between their region and the more built-up watershed lands in the Hudson Valley that are the more frequent focus of environmental complaints.) For example, a spokesman for the Catskill Watershed Corporation, which oversees distribution of much of the economic development money from the city, proudly showed The Observer an array of continuing capital projects in Delaware County, including giant salt sheds, ornate water treatment plants as well as the newly modernized Gray farm. The spokesman, Diane Galusha, said that those projects were necessary to protect the city’s water supply, and that none could have gone forward without the good will and cooperation of the locals.

And many residents will readily admit that good will can be awfully hard to come by. “The people around here are naturally cautious about accepting restrictions from the city,” explained Nelson Bradshaw, a reporter for the Delaware County Times , a local weekly. “Many have been struggling financially for a long time now, and they are wary about anything that makes economic development any more difficult.”

Republican leaders in the watershed region seem to be accepting the Mayor’s apparent olive branch, at least for now. State Senator John Bonacic of Delaware County, one of upstate New York’s most outspoken critics of watershed restrictions, is cautiously optimistic about Mr. Giuliani’s recent record. “I think he’s trying to do the right thing, and it’s compounded by his political aspiration to be a U.S. senator,” said Mr. Bonacic. “He’s been a fair-minded guy, and I think he wants the spirit of the agreement carried out from when it was made, and wants to keep a fair balance between the city’s needs and ours.”

But, Mr. Bonacic warned darkly, any new measures taken by the city to regulate watershed activity without satisfactory justification could have dire consequences. “There is no scientific basis for some of the things that have been proposed, and that prejudices people against the agreement,” he said. “It would create a war if ever some of these things were implemented without scientific justification. It would get people angry and who knows where it would go from there.” Mr. Bonacic is especially concerned about the city’s now-rescinded request to limit development in wetland areas.

Other prominent leaders, however, including the Representative whose district covers part of Delaware County and much of the watershed to the south and east, see a disaster looming in the deals the Mayor seems to have struck with leaders like Mr. Bonacic. “It’s hard to get into the Mayor’s head, but I can’t understand why the people running the New York City government aren’t more alarmed about this,” said Representative Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat. “If this were happening on my watch as Mayor, given the rapid deterioration of the watershed and the jeopardy in which the system is being placed, I would be spurred to action. I just can’t believe they’re taking such a casual attitude.”

If the stakes are high on the Mayor’s watershed gamble, the jury is still out on whether it will pay off. A number of recent conciliatory moves by the Department of Environmental Protection, like opening up city-operated watershed lands to hunters, seem to be getting the Mayor some positive attention among the largely conservative voters in the Catskill region.

But criticisms of the city’s watershed policy are growing ever louder from environmental groups, a range of Republican and Democratic officials and Congressional leaders, and New York City officials like Comptroller Alan Hevesi, whose office already has conducted several audits which found flaws in the department’s conduct.

And at the other end of the spectrum, some of the watershed’s more demanding residents have plenty of criticism for Mr. Giuliani as long as he supports the agreement in any form whatsoever. “We in the watershed know that we are being dominated by a Russian-like force of bureaucrats from New York City who don’t know us or care to know us,” said Ken Pyle, a professor at the State University of New York at Delhi and a member of several community groups. “The agreement stymies and inhibits our future growth and use of the land in an area that still likes to consider itself truly American. There is obviously no awareness of this in the city leadership.”

Mr. Kennedy, for one, seems to have little sympathy for the Mayor’s apparent predicament, and is vowing to ensure that watershed protection becomes a campaign issue in the near future. He said he has already met with three of Mr. Giuliani’s likely successors as Mayor, Mr. Hevesi, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Public Advocate Mark Green, and that they had all promised to effect drastic changes at the department after taking office. As for the race to win the seat once held by Mr. Kennedy’s father, he said: “It’s going to be very close, and by Giuliani aligning himself with these rapacious right-wing interests in the watershed, a lot of the people that he’ll need in the city and the suburbs are just not going to feel safe voting for him.”