President of the Yorktown Land Trust
A version of this article is printed in two parts in Westchester Environment, July-August and September-October 1996, and also in The North County News, August 21, 1996. It is reproduced here by courtesy of the author.
"New York City shouldn't expect Yonkers or Yorktown residents to welcome what the Bronx doesn't want." So begins the December 26, 1995 editorial in the Reporter Dispatch titled "New York City can keep filtration plant".
What is it that the Bronx doesn't want? It is a mammoth water treatment plant, a proposed state-of-the-art facility to filter water from the Croton Reservoir system to be used by New York City residents and businesses.
For twenty five years the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has planned to build a water treatment plant at the Jerome Park Reservoir, in the north Bronx. In a 1970 long range study, the DEP planned for a 450-million-gallon-a-day filtration plant as part of a facility that would also include an office building, pump station, and clearwell for holding the filtered water.
There wasn't much reaction. Until several years ago. As a long term proposal began to look more like a short term reality, local opposition mounted. The Friends of Jerome Park Reservoir was established in 1990, and residents began fighting the location of the twenty square block project in 1994 as the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) of the Jerome Park Reservoir. Alternate sites were targeted, with the filtration plant getting kicked about the Bronx and Westchester County.
In June 1995 the "filtration foes" held a meeting in Yorktown to open a dialogue with the local community. At that time, one New Castle site and three Yorktown sites near the Croton Reservoir were discussed. The Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers and a second Bronx site at Van Cortlandt Park were also identified. An estimated size of the facility was a rough comparison to the Jefferson Valley Mall including all the parking lots, and a time frame for construction was about five years. Despite the well organized pitch of Paul Elston (member of both the Jerome Park Reservoir CAC and the New York City Community Board #8) and comments from a DEP representative, Yorktown officials made it clear they didn't need - or want - a New York City filtration plant in town.
New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani joined the action in December 1995 when City Hall declared a six month moratorium period to rehash both the location and filtration process to be used. The delay was enacted just days before a New York State deadline for an environmental analysis of the proposed plant at the Jerome Park Reservoir, and just weeks before a rezoning was to be set in motion.
In an effort to open communication, the DEP announced the formation of the Croton Working Group in January 1996. The committee would include representatives from all the proposed sites, and its mission would be to evaluate locations for the $630 million plant.
Then in early April 1996 Mayor Giuliani's office announced that there would be no Croton Working Group, noting that the DEP had disclosed the proposal for the committee prematurely. Instead, the Mayor's office would conduct talks with the NYS Department of Health and Westchester County officials - and the focus of the site would be Westchester County rather than New York City.
The reaction of Westchester officials to the demise of the Croton Working Group was immediate. Westchester County Commissioner of Planning Lynn Oliva said, "We were frankly flabbergasted ... and it's very disconcerting to have a breakdown in communication." Andrew O'Rourke, County Executive, criticized the move and wrote, "If ... the City fails to convince a Westchester community of the wisdom of accepting a filtration plant within its borders, the County will join that community in fighting any effort to locate a plant here."
Linda Cooper, Yorktown Supervisor, wrote to Giuliani, "I was shocked and dismayed to read ... you are unilaterally determining to place the Croton Water Filtration Plant in either Yorktown or Yonkers." At the same time Yonkers City Council President Vincenza Restiano described New York City's less than inclusive efforts to find a site in Yonkers "totally unacceptable".
Other Westchester officials had similar comments, criticizing Giuliani's action. Westchester Democratic Party Chairman Andrew Spano wrote, "Never has an issue cried out for bipartisanship and cooperation more than the decision of the New York City Mayor to rescind his promise to form a Croton Working Group. This is a Westchester County issue."
Under constant political pressure, in June 1996 the DEP has requested an 18-month extension from the New York State Department of Health to explore three issues. The first is whether or not filtration is needed at all; the second is evaluation of the pilot studies of the three alternative sites; and the third is the proposed type of filtration (ozone-diatomaceous earth or ozone-DE for short). Two further changes are included in the request. The DEP has asked that language specifically mentioning the Jerome Park Reservoir as the preferred site for the filtration plant be removed. The DEP will also use the time to investigate alternative locations for the clearwell, which is an enormous holding tank for the filtered water. This request comes just six months after New York City declared a six-month moratorium period last December.
Apart from the political background, it is prudent to ask who would benefit from the clean filtered water of the Croton Reservoir if a water treatment plant were constructed in Yorktown. The public water in Yorktown comes from the Amawalk Reservoir, a connected section of the Croton system, but located north of the proposed filtration plant. So Yorktowners on town water would not benefit at all.
All of southern Yorktown, including land surrounding the Croton Reservoir, has no public water. All residents and businesses are served by private wells, and would not benefit at all.
Some of the Westchester communities south of Yorktown draw public water from the Croton system, and several years ago could have used the filtered water. But all the local towns are under mandates to filter public water, and have plans set in motion to satisfy the New York State time frame. Yorktown has formed a consortium with Cortlandt, and New Castle has already built its own filtration plant. So the Westchester communities south of the Croton Reservoir would also not benefit.
The Croton Reservoir supplies about 10% of the water to New York City, while the Catskill and Delaware systems comprise 90% of the total water supply. A filtration plant in Yorktown would therefore benefit about one tenth of the users of public water in New York City.
The cost of the water treatment plant at the Jerome Park Reservoir has been estimated at $630 million. It would most likely cost more than that. Add another $400 million (plus or minus a few million) to construct a facility in Yorktown, because of factors such as additional piping, necessary pumping, improved roads, and environmental review for building a filtration plant (literally) in the Croton Reservoir.
If the DEP used the Jerome Park Reservoir site, New York City would not need to pay itself any taxes. If the facility were located in Westchester County, New York City would pay local taxes every year, based on the value of the entire project. Millions of dollars in taxes each year would add to the long term cost.
A primary foal of filtering public water is to protect citizens from Cryptosporidium, a waterborne organism which can cause intestinal illness. It is of particular concern to people with certain immune system deficiencies. However, three cities with filtered water in Georgia, Oregon and Wisconsin have recently had outbreaks of cryptosporidiosis. On the other hand, New York City, with three huge water systems using unfiltered water, has been monitoring the water since 1992 and has had no problem with cryptosporidiosis.
What alternative is there to ensure safe clean water if New York City does not use filtration for the Croton Reservoir?
The most logical answer is the approach used by the DEP with the Catskill and Delaware water systems which draw water from west of the Hudson River. To avoid filtration, the DEP has worked out an extensive watershed protection agreement with local communities and farms near the reservoirs and water sources. The goal is to keep the pollutants out of the water in the first place so it doesn't need to be filtered.
In 1973 the US Congress passed the Clean Water Act requiring all surface water to be filtered (eventually). This Act was amended in 1986 and determines the standards set by the national Environmental Protection Agency. Each state must enforce these standards, and the NYS Department of Health has the role of watchdog and policeman. Filtration avoidance programs are the exception to the rule.
At present 67 sewage treatment plants discharge effluent into the Croton Reservoir. (This is called point source pollution.) Non-point source pollution also affects water quality, primarily caused by suburban surface runoff. In spite of this, the water in the Reservoir meets federal standards and is safe in its unfiltered condition at the present time. Addressing both levels of pollution now would insure safe clean water for generations to come without the need for filtration.
Filtration does clean water, but it also generates further pollution problems. A filtration plant that treats 450 million gallons a day could produce 32,000 gallons a day of sludge. The sludge must then be transported and/or disposed of and/or treated further. Daily truck traffic and constant use of chemicals require more expense, impact on the local community, and potential pollution side effects.
As soon as filtration is in use, the incentive to keep the water clean is lost. "Filtration Mentality" sets in. Attention to pollution from both point sources and nonpoint sources is reduced. Money, political pressure, and citizen attention are drawn to other issues. If the water is being cleaned at great cost, why bother trying to keep it clean in the first place??
If the same amount of time, money, energy and political maneuvering that has been spent so far on kicking the water treatment plant about and planning for its construction were instead spent on targeting where pollution is coming from and then eliminating it, there would be no need for filtration.
In Italy, much of Rome's water comes from the same watershed that was first used over 2,000 years ago, and the water is unfiltered and clean. Working together, New York City and Westchester County could meet the challenge of keeping a Reservoir clean that is less than 200 years old.