A Test of Leadership: Saving the Watershed

On the very day that Governor George Pataki quite properly celebrated another step in the rehabilitation of the Hudson River, environmental officials remarked rather forcefully upon the deteriorating conditions of the city’s upstate watershed. Thanks to the federal government’s go-ahead, it seems all but certain that Mr. Pataki’s vision of a park along the West Side will be realized in 2005; when the ribbon is cut, however, celebrants would be well advised to carry their own bottled water as they toast the riverfront’s revival.

These days, the Hudson is full of shad. The city’s reservoir system, on the other hand, is full of other stuff, none of it fit for human consumption, though some of it is the end product of such consumption. Environmentalists, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., have been warning the Giuliani administration for the better part of the 1990’s that there would be a reckoning if the city didn’t act aggressively to protect its drinking water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ratified Mr. Kennedy’s opinion on May 31, putting the city on notice that if conditions did not improve, the city treasury would soon be poorer by $6 billion-the cost of a massive filtration system that the feds will require unless drastic action is taken in the next two years.

The Hudson River Park is a study in leadership. The watershed debacle is a case of leadership avoidance. Until Mr. Pataki took office, the appalling condition of Manhattan’s West Side had been a scandal of long standing, a potentially fabulous resource left to rot because some folks in the neighborhood with loud voices equated development with corruption, greed and all manner of outrageous flimflam. They still do, bless their pure hearts, but Mr. Pataki has dispatched them to the margins. And, now that the federal government has given the project its blessing, the park will proceed apace, until the eyesore known as the West Side waterfront is transformed into a five-mile jewel.

The city has been unwilling, or unable, to take charge of the watershed in the same way that the Governor seized control of the waterfront agenda. According to the E.P.A., the city has been negligent in upgrading sewage treatment plants adjacent to the Catskill reservoir system, and has been tardy in warding off development near the Kensico Reservoir in Westchester County. Mr. Kennedy has made the same points in the past, apparently to no avail. And so the city finds itself with a mere two years to clean up or suffer the indignity-and cost-of a federally mandated filtration system.

It is fortunate, indeed, for the watershed debate that Mayor Giuliani is out of the Senate race, as he and his friends surely would have wasted little time in denouncing the E.P.A. warning as yet another example of the Clinton administration’s relentless effort to embarrass City Hall, just like the federal probe of the Police Department and Andrew Cuomo’s seizure of housing funds. The accusation may be made anyway, just for old times sake. If so, Mr. Kennedy no doubt will find himself identified in certain editorial pages as part of the left-wing conspiracy that is manipulating federal policy to make New York safe for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Protecting the largest unfiltered watershed in the country is no small project, and admittedly it is fraught with all kinds of political complications. Property owners in rural watershed areas, particularly those who see development on its way and entertain dreams of a real estate killing, may not be especially sympathetic to the cause of clean, unfiltered water for the city’s roiling masses. Upstaters who see watershed regulation as a barrier to needed economic development understandably resent restrictions on land use. Still, though, it should hardly be beyond the power and genius of the city to ensure the quality of its water supply.

While the watershed has become ever more imperiled, City Hall is preparing to spend more than $100 million to build a couple of minor-league ballparks in Brooklyn and Staten Island. The $70 million-plus to be spent on the Staten Island ballpark, and the additional millions designated for the Brooklyn stadium, surely would go a long way toward pleasing those recalcitrant property owners along the Kensico Reservoir. But the Mayor has his priorities: Let ’em drink ballpark beer.

Mayor Giuliani will be out of office by 2002, when the city may be required to begin filtration. Governor Pataki may well be out of office, too, when the Hudson River Park is finished. So these issues speak directly to their respective legacies. Mr. Giuliani may leave the city with a $6 billion tab; Mr. Pataki will bequeath Manhattan with a magnificent park. If these two men are as competitive with each other as word has it, the Mayor ought to be worried that history will be a good deal kinder to his Republican brother in Albany.

A Test of Leadership: Saving the Watershed