N.Y. Makes Waves with Nonpoint Source Pollution, Watershed Planning and the Clean Water Act

By Appleton, Albert F. | Nation's Cities Weekly, September 13, 1993 | Go to article overview

N.Y. Makes Waves with Nonpoint Source Pollution, Watershed Planning and the Clean Water Act


Appleton, Albert F., Nation's Cities Weekly


Great improvements to water quality have been realized since the Clean Water Act's enactment. At the same time, it is widely recognized that new clean water strategies are now required. Recent studies, both federal and others, have consistently concluded that, as industrial wastewater and municipal sewage discharges come under increasing control, pollution from nonpoint sources is now the most significant cause of water quality degradation. If the Congress does nothing else in reauthorizing the Clean Water Act, it must commit program and financial resources proportionate to the scope of the nonpoint source problem. Nonpoint pollution sources must be attacked today as aggressively as point sources have been since the enactment of the act.

The two keys to controlling nonpoint source pollution are pollution prevention and environmentally-appropriate land use management. One of the clearest lessons of the environmental movement is that it is significantly more cost effective to prevent pollution than it is to clean it up. Another lesson is that the lack of proper land use safeguards and the misuse of environment-sensitive areas are principal causes of nonpoint source pollution. No nonpoint source pollution control program will be successful without addressing these problems. Pollution prevention and environmentally-appropriate land use must be integrated with point source controls. This will require the flexibility to apply a broad array of strategies. Comprehensive, ecosystem-wide programs that address all sources of pollution and reflect the site-specific water quality needs of diverse aquatic ecosystems will achieve our water quality goals. If the main emphasis is mechanically placed on technological approaches or one-size-fits-all planning systems and best management practices, we will not only fail, but we will have misspent billions of dollars in the process.

As the Senate legislation, S 1114, recognizes in its provisions for watershed planning, these objectives require new institutional arrangements, ones that acknowledge that nonpoint source pollution control is a vital element of watershed planning. New York City has adopted a watershed-wide ecosystem planning approach that has guided the city's extensive drinking water and harbor-estuary policies. We would like to share our thoughts about how these programs fit into Congressional efforts to address nonpoint source pollution and watershed planning.

Under New York state law, New York City may develop and enforce regulations in its two upstate watersheds--the Croton and Catskill-Delaware system--which encompass 19 reservoirs and over 1900 square miles, an area nearly the size of Delaware. These watersheds are the source of drinking water for nine million consumers each day--about half New York state's population. Nearly one million of these consumers reside upstate, while the remaining 8 million reside or work in New York City. The city's drinking water supply is of such exceptionally high quality that it often wins contests. To protect this rich natural bounty, we have worked in cooperation with the state, local upstate governments and citizens, to implement a comprehensive watershed protection plan.

In developing its comprehensive watershed protection strategy, the city has emphasized two fundamental ingredients. First, wherever appropriate, the city's watershed protection plans reflect the view that the best management of the land and water resources encompassing major drainage systems will occur not through fiat but with the active participation and cooperation of states, localities, regulated entities and citizens. Second, the city is focusing on pollution prevention and reduction, rather than regulation for its own sake. Thus, the city is pursuing a program whereby its regulatory structure sets the environmental targets but can be administered flexibly--or even waived--if the city's environmental objectives can be more readily or less onerously achieved through locally-based nonregulatory approaches. …

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