New York City Water and the Catskills Agricultural Program
A report by The Bard Center for Environmental Policy Masters Candidates: Andrew Bonanno, Jeremy Cherson, Violeta Borilova Mezeklieva, Judson Peck
New York City residents receive more than 1 billion gallons of unfiltered drinking water per day from the reservoirs in the Catskill-Delaware and Croton Watersheds, located within 125 miles from NYC. This is, in part, possible because of the Whole Farm Program created by the Watershed Agricultural Council (WAC). The voluntary program helps farmers reduce water pollution in the Catskill-Delaware and Croton Watersheds through monetary and technical support. As reported by the WAC 2013 Annual Report, $2.9 million was granted to 128 farms to implement 274 best management activities. Furthermore, this program has assured that the water supplied to NYC follows regulations defined by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).
The following sections present:
- How the WAC developed and a description of how the voluntary program works
- Case study of Whole Farm Program in Delaware County, NY
- Pure Catskills label and how to get involved
Background on the Whole Farm Program
In the early 1990’s, NYC faced the building of an estimated $6 billion water treatment facility with a yearly operating cost of $300 million. In 1989 the EPA released the Surface Water Treatment Rule (SWTR) under the SDWA. The rule required NYC, with 19 reservoirs in the Catskill-Delaware and the Croton Watersheds, to control its deteriorating water quality or construct a treatment facility. After attempting heavy handed regulations of the Catskills watershed to control for point and nonpoint source pollution, the city signed an agreement with Catskills communities to implement an ecosystem wide watershed management program. Point source pollution, as defined by Section 502(14) of the Clean Water Act, is a pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, well, …which pollutants are or may be discharged. A nonpoint source is any source of pollution not defined under the point source. An example of nonpoint source pollution is rainfall or snowmelt transporting natural or human caused pollutants and depositing them into water resources.
To ensure water quality improvements are met, the Watershed Agricultural Council created a volunteer program for farmers called the Whole Farm Program to develop Whole Farm Plans. WAC works in collaboration with experts from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Cornell Cooperative Extension, NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Delaware County Soil and Water Conservation District. Through Whole Farm Planning, farmers receive technical and managerial support to develop farming practices that are less polluting to downstream water users. Farmers receive this technical and managerial support through a system of payments provided by a cooperative program offered by NYC DEP and the USDA. In technical terms these payments are referred to as payments for ecosystem services (PES).
How Whole Farm Planning Works
Considering that the watershed of the NYC Water Supply is comprised primarily of dairy farmers, the main concern for water pollution is the extensive use of fertilizers and the management of animal manure. Poor managerial practices allow for these fertilizers and manure to runoff into nearby waterbodies, degrading overall water quality. Aquatic plants and algae grow faster when there is an abundance of nitrogen or phosphorous. As a consequence, algae covers the surface preventing sunlight from reaching deeper plants, causing death. Bacteria decompose dead algae and in the process use up oxygen in the water. The resulting lack of oxygen (known as hypoxia) kills aquatic life and degrades water quality.
To improve water quality the WAC pays for expert consultants to develop a Whole Farm Plan tailored to the individual needs of each farmer. The Whole Farm Plan reduces common pollutants on the farm including pathogens and phosphorus from manure, fertilizers and pesticides, erosion, diesel fuels and other toxic farm materials. The steps taken to reduce these common pollutants are known as Best Management Practices (BMPs) and include:
- Manure storage lagoon reduces the amount of manure spread during the winter. This is important, because manure applied on snow or frozen ground is not absorbed into the soil and instead runs off during snowmelt and spring rains.
- Nutrient management plan adjusts the time and reduces the amount of manure applied to fields that already have high amounts of phosphorous in the soil and to areas prone to runoff.
- Rotational grazing system moves cows around among different pastures to reduce overgrazing and subsequent soil erosion.
- Livestock fencing keeps cows out of streams and marsh areas to prevent erosion and manure runoff into streams.
- Grassy filter area to intercept barnyard runoff from flowing directly into streams. Plants take up nutrients, such as phosphorous, as they grow and roots hold soil together reducing erosion.
- Storage for fuel and other toxic materials to keep away from streams and animals.
Cannonsville Watershed Study
A study by NY DEC and Cornell University assessed the effectiveness of these best management practices (BMPs) in reducing water contamination by monitoring water quality before and after BMP implementation on a farm. The 400-acre dairy farm is located in Delaware County, NY and lies within the Cannonsville Watershed in the Catskill Mountains. The study also used a nearby non-farm site for comparison of water quality without agriculture or cows. Water quality was assessed based on the amount of phosphorus in streams because phosphorus is a key determinant of water quality and it is an indicator for potential bacteria since it primarily originates from manure. Water quality was continuously monitored for 2 years before and 4 years after the BMPs mentioned above were implemented on the farm.
The results show that phosphorus concentrations in the stream on the farm were 3-10 times higher than the stream on the non-
farm site, which emphasizes the importance of farm management in protecting water quality. Overall,BMPs reduced the amount of phosphorous that ran off the farm and into the stream by 43%. Furthermore, the study found that the winter season accounts for 42% of annual phosphorous runoff (see figure), which emphasizes the importance of manure management.This study provides evidence for the significant positive impact that BMPs have in reducing phosphorous contamination and maintaining water quality of NYC water supply.
BMPs have not only proven to improve water quality, but also help farmers gain access to new markets and resources that contribute to the health and economic vitality of the farm. In addition, WAC provides farmers with a forum for education and knowledge sharing. This network allows for farmer-to-farmer collaboration and offers an ‘attractive’ market for consumers knowing that the products originate from farms that are protecting water quality. As a result, farmers and residents of NYC benefit from producing and consuming environmentally responsible products while ensuring the preservation of a clean water resource.
Pure Catskills and NYC Water Quality
The Catskill-Delaware Watershed supplies New York City with 90% of its daily 1.3 billion gallons of water. As the largest unfiltered water supply in the United States, the Catskill-Delaware Watershed delivers quality water to NYC residents at half the price of a filtered system.
A major threat to the quality of NYC water quality is agricultural activities in the Catskills, particularly manure accumulation and subsequent runoff. However, high quality drinking water is maintained largely through the adoption of best management practices by farmers, such as those described in the case above. Positive contributions toward NYC’s water quality are an economic possibility for farmers because of the payments for ecosystem services made by the city. It is important to remember that since these payments are less than the costs of installing and maintaining a water filtration system, this arrangement actually saves money for city residents.
Payments for ecosystem services and the adoption of best management practices not only provide income for farmers and savings for NYC residents, but also produce high quality drinking water. The New York City 2013 Drinking Water Quality and Supply Report indicates that NYC “drinking water met all health-based and other drinking water standards in 2013.” Although NYC drinking water has recently contained a number of contaminants related to its delivery infrastructure (e.g. from old pipes and
fixtures), no significant agricultural contaminants have been detected. This is a testament to best management practices adopted by the more than 500 Catskill farmers who participate in the Watershed Agricultural Council’s Whole Farms Program.
Farmers who participate in the Whole Farms Program can use the “Pure Catskills” label on their products, indicating to consumers that they are supporting agricultural practices that keep NYC drinking water clean. Although farmers do not technically have to be members of the Whole Farm Program to use the “Pure Catskills” label, farmers must be from the Catskills region and the vast majority of Catskills farmers participate in the program. Additionally, the Watershed Agricultural Council monitors those using the “Pure Catskills” label to ensure quality standards are met. With this in mind, one way that those concerned with clean drinking water in New York City can contribute to high quality water is by purchasing items that carry the “Catskills Pure” label. In this way, individuals and communities in New York can vote with their dollars to save money on their water bills and for safe drinking water.