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Protecting the Purity
of the City's Drinking Water

Protecting the Purity of the City's Drinking Water
The Ashokan Reservoir, at the eastern edge of Catskill Park, is the oldest and deepest of the City's reservoirs at over 180 feet deep with a capacity of 122.9 billion gallons.
Most New Yorkers drink out of cool, clear mountain streams every day without leaving their homes. Rain and melted snow from the forested mountains filter through the Catskill/Delaware and Croton watersheds and collect into 19 vast reservoirs. Each day, more than 1.1 billion gallons of water are pumped into the City, earning its reputation as the Dom Perignon of drinking water. But the system is delicate and at constant risk of contamination.

The Trust has been a lead funder of efforts to safeguard this resource. "Since we began our New York City environmental grants program in the mid-1980s, protecting the quality of the City's drinking water supply has been a priority," said Pat Jenny, program director for The Trust's environmental grantmaking. "With our support, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Riverkeeper, and other groups, successfully campaigned for New York City to set aside $300 million to buy ecologically sensitive watershed lands between 2007 and 2017, part of the 1997 landmark agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the purity of City drinking water in its unfiltered state." Since then, Trust grants have helped groups purchase conservation easements on forest and agricultural lands in the watersheds.

Still, steadfast monitoring is required throughout the watersheds facing growth pressures as the New York metropolitan region spreads northward. "Ill-planned development threatens the ecosystems that provide natural filtration for the water of nine million downstate residents," said Eric A. Goldstein of NRDC. "Such development replaces forests, meadows, and wetlands with roadways, parking lots, and rooftops. That brings additional sewage pollution and leads to storm-water runoff." In 1999, a developer proposed a massive plan to build three golf courses, hotels, and hundreds of condos on a nearly 2,000-acre plot of forested land adjacent to the Belleayre Ski Center in the heart of the Catskill watershed.This posed a serious threat to water quality and would have set a dangerous precedent for future development.

After several years in and out of court, environmental organizations were victorious and signed an agreement in principle that would protect more than 86 percent of the total acreage from development and provide for a more ecologically sensitive project. Its single golf course would be managed without dangerous pesticides and it would also have to meet stringent standards for waste treatment and erosion control. And before this smaller development could advance, it would have to make it through a supplemental public environmental review process.

But protecting this expansive landscape requires more than challenging individual projects. Trust grants have supported Riverkeeper's public education and organizing campaign in towns in Putnam and Westchester counties to adopt more sustainable land-use patterns. One specific result of this campaign was a State ruling that forced the town of Southeast's planning board to hold a rigorous environmental review before approving a housing development on parcels containing wetlands and other waterways. Its report, Pave it...or Save It?, covered the environmental, social, and economic impact of sprawl and was presented to more than half the town boards in the Croton watershed.

The Trust's commitment to protecting our drinking water, as well as grants for projects to reduce air pollution and other environmental toxins, manage our solid waste, conserve parks and open space, and reclaim our waterfront are made possible by generous donors who set up funds long ago. "These New Yorkers trusted us, and our successors, to respond to contemporary problems," said The Trust's president, Lorie Slutsky. "The charitable resources they left to us will help us leave a healthier city to our grandchildren and great grandchildren."

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The New York Community Trust is a 501(c)3 public charity.