By recognizing that healthy working lands provide clean water, an unlikely alliance of New York City officials and upstate farmers came together in the early 1990’s to create a unique watershed protection program. The ground-breaking program protected the purity of the region’s water without inflicting onerous regulations that would have decimated the region’s agricultural industry.
“If we can protect farm and forest lands throughout our
watershed, then we protect water quality for the residents of New York City,” said Craig Cashman, executive director of the Watershed Agricultural Council in Walton, NY. “When both local residents and New York City officials came to understand this basic premise, we created a win-win situation that is still working 20 years later.”
Ninety-percent of the drinking water that supplies New York City’s nine million inhabitants comes from the Catskills-Delaware watershed located northwest of the City, with another ten percent supplied by the Croton watershed that lies to the northeast. Together, the watersheds and the reservoirs that they house meet the City’s daily demand for over one billion gallons per day.
In the 1980’s Congress passed a series of bills that required that all drinking water derived from surface water sources be treated or filtered, and gave oversight to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The primary concern for New York City was how to control non-source pollution at the source of most of its drinking water. Conventional wisdom said that filtration was the only option. Experts estimated that building a filtration plant large enough to handle the Catskills-Delaware watershed output would cost $10 billion to build and $1-million a day to operate (in 2012 dollars).
Vexed by the enormous price tag of a water filtration plant, City officials turned to watershed protection, focusing primarily on the still-rural and agriculturally productive Catskills-Delaware watershed, as an alternative. The mantra became “a clean environment will produce clean water.” And the question became how to translate that philosophy into action, not only on public lands, but on private property as well.
To control non-point source pollution, City officials initially turned to regulations and land use limits within the watersheds. The local reaction was swift, harsh and predictably defiant, particularly from the upstate farming community which argued that the City’s proposal would put 90 percent of the region’s farmers out of business. “People initially participated out of fear,” Cashman said. “The threat of heavy regulations made people afraid for their land and their livelihoods.” It was this fear that rallied farmers to propose a solution for themselves, and prompted City and watershed representatives to the negotiating table.
At the suggestion of the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, the heated conversation cooled off with an educational exchange. First, representatives of New York City explained the specifics of preserving drinking water, the City’s regulatory obligations, the City’s risks, and its strategies for dealing with them. Then, the local farming community representatives provided an unvarnished look at life on Catskills farms. The farmers discussed economic challenges, their views of their farms’ pollution problems, and their own unhappy experiences non-point source pollution regulations delivered from the top down. Both sides quickly realized they had a common challenge: creating a farmer-friendly program of watershed protection.
A New Approach
“The Watershed Agricultural Council was born when local residents asked themselves, ‘How can we be the difference?’” Cashman said. “The answer was to have local people address issues of local concern. If this program was going to work, outside forces couldn’t come in telling local people how to manage their land and their livelihoods. The cornerstone of our long-term success has been building trust.” The Council’s success hinges on three key factors: local control, voluntary participation and 100 percent funding from New York City. Subsequently, the Council is comprised of 19 board members: 15 live in the watershed, one represents New York City, and four “at-large” members represent partner, community and stakeholder interests.
In addition to being locally controlled, the group also recognized that the Watershed Agricultural Program would have to be voluntary and it could not negatively impact farmers or their operations. “People respond better to incentives than threats,” Cashman said. And so, the Council and its programs became a model for Payment for Environmental Services, or PES, whereby watershed protection programs monetarily reward the desired behavior of protecting water quality through land conservation measures.
But knowing that a majority of the farmers had to participate in order for the non-point source pollution control measures to be effective, the City offered to fund a $3 million three-year pilot program. In return, the City asked the farmer-led group to enroll 85 percent of large watershed farms into the fledgling Watershed Agricultural Program. Within 18 months, the Program met its target participation goal and incorporated in 1993 as the Watershed Agricultural Council. Even after two decades, program personnel continue to screen and enroll new farms each year.
While establishing relationships and building trust have been major factors in the program’s success, another key has been the WAC’s commitment to “do no harm” to farmers or their livelihoods.
“People aren’t going to volunteer to participate in a program if it creates a burden for them,” Cashman said. “Our goal was–and is–two-fold. We want to provide clean drinking water and we want to help farmers keep farming by creating program options that don’t negatively impact their operations.”
New York City funds the cost of the watershed protection programs, which in addition to farm enhancement incentives, include procuring conservation easements. Currently, WAC has placed 22,785 acres on 140 properties under conservation easements and anticipates enrolling 10,000 additional acres over the next five years. To date, WAC has spent $30 million purchasing development rights.
“From our perspective and that of New York City, the preferred land use in the watershed is agriculture. If we can protect our farmland from development, then we can protect our water quality,” said Cashman. “For a whole system approach to work, everyone involved has to win. In our case, we’ve enabled farmers to care for the environment without negatively impacting their livelihoods and we’ve allowed the nine million residents of New York to enjoy pure drinking water for a fraction of the cost of filtered water. By any definition, that’s a win-win.”