Whether or not New York City filters its drinking water is of minimal consequence to people in and around the Capital Region.
But billions of gallons of that water sitting behind upstate dams is drawing attention to a review focusing on how the city manages its water system during hurricanes, flash floods and other disasters.
With a reconstruction project under way to ensure that the Gilboa Dam holds strong — and keeps more than 17 billion gallons of water from gushing down toward the Capital Region — U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, is demanding that flood mitigation be considered as part of a five-year review of the city’s Filtration Avoidance Determination.
Through the FAD agreement, the Big Apple was able to avoid having to build a $10 billion filtration plant and spend $100 million a year to run it.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1989 ordered the filtration in water systems, but a series of actions to protect New York City’s water supply, such as helping to fix septic systems and purchasing land to prevent development, were among steps that enable the city to avoid the cost of filtration.
The five-year review for the plan, which provides an opportunity for changes in the steps the city takes to keep the waiver in place, is now overdue.
Public comment was collected before development of the update and before Aug. 28, 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene struck the Schoharie Creek basin and other areas.
The Schoharie Creek runs northward from the Catskills into the Schoharie Reservoir, over the Gilboa Dam and then into the lower reservoir of the New York Power Authority’s hydroelectric project dam in North Blenheim before plunging toward the Mohawk River.
Gibson last week issued a statement highlighting the impact large bodies of water have on downstream communities, making a case for the FAD to include not just water quality but flood mitigation and stream protection measures as part of the requirements.
“Throughout my district, it is clear that we need to better manage flood-mitigation strategies for our waterways. Repeatedly, we have seen devastating flooding that has caused almost unprecedented destruction. We cannot continue on this trajectory without changing course,” he said in the statement.
“Critical to these efforts is the improved management of the New York City watershed. We need policies that work and ensure not only the conveyance of clean water to New York City but equitable treatment of our upstate communities to prevent flooding and advance their own economic interests,” Gibson said in the statement.
The five-year review of New York City’s FAD is being conducted by the state departments of Health and Environmental Conservation with the federal EPA playing a consulting role.
Adam Bosch, spokesman for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, said the city is expecting a modified FAD to be issued soon.
The initial public comment period took place before Tropical Storm Irene put more eyes on the city’s water supply system and its impacts to the north, but he said there will be public comment to follow the document’s unveiling.
Bosch said the FAD in effect now has led to a great deal of focus on the watershed, which includes parts of Schoharie County. These efforts include spending roughly $1.5 billion on buying land, partnership programs to address water supply threats like failing septic systems and economic development in the Catskills.
Esperance Supervisor Earl Van Wormer III recalls speaking with New York City officials not long after the Gilboa Dam was deemed antiquated, and flood-mitigation work was among their promises back then.
But Van Wormer said he can’t think of an example of any of that work taking place.
The city, Van Wormer said, has the capabilities, and the money, to do more in the watershed.
“I think anybody would argue that New York City is the largest city in the world,” Van Wormer said, adding that the tourism and other revenues are massive compared with Schoharie County. “I would think they could do it.”
Schoharie County’s flood recovery coordinator, William Cherry, who lost his Schoharie home to Irene, said he sees an evolution leading to concern for those downstream of the water that gets sent downstate.
“Times have changed, and New York City has to realize they have an obligation to the rest of us ... it’s also up to them to help us to make sure in flood events, we don’t get washed downstream,” he said.
State Health Department spokesman James P. O’Hare said in an email that public hearings on the FAD took place in Delhi, Delaware County; Belleayre, Ulster County; Somers in Putnam County; and Manhattan.
“This public input was used to help inform the development of the FAD programs for the second five-year period. Once the draft FAD is issued, stakeholders will have the opportunity to review and provide comments during a 45-day comment period,” he said.