One of New York City’s greatest natural resources is our drinking water. A billion gallons a day, meeting 90 percent of the city’s needs, flows down to our faucets from reservoirs in the Catskills, thanks to wise and strategic planning dating back to the 19th century. And 200 years later, the water is still so clean it requires no filtration. Among large American cities, only Seattle, San Francisco, Boston and Portland have comparable water quality.
But clean water is also the resource most New Yorkers take for granted. A decline in water quality would have a significant impact on the city’s finances. Earlier this year the federal Environmental Protection Agency granted the city a 10-year exemption from having to filter the Catskill water, sparing the city from having to construct an $8 billion filtration plant, with millions of dollars of annual operating costs. (For the 10 percent of the city’s water that comes from Westchester, a $2 billion filtration plant is being built in the Bronx.)
It is crucial that the Catskill watershed have ongoing protection from adjacent development. There are more than a few upstate legislators who would be happy to hand the land over to condo developers. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection commissioner, Emily Lloyd, deserves credit for aggressively pushing the city to acquire $300 million of land in the watershed over the next decade.
Meanwhile, one might ask why New Yorkers—who like to think of themselves as street-smart—continue to pay for bottled water that isn’t any better than the stuff coming out of their kitchen faucet, at an estimated additional cost to themselves of $1,400 a year. Not to mention that the latest research indicates that drinking bottled water can have a trickle-down negative effect on the environment, as it adds to fuel emissions (for packing and shipping) and plastic in landfills.
Those 19th-century city planners would be laughing at our need to pay for the same water they drank for free.