Urban Water Quality Protection

Ensuring secure sources of drinking water is becoming a larger - and more expensive - concern for urban municipalities. Tensions between urban and upstream rural populations add to the complexity. However, New York City (NYC) has found a way to address both the social and ecological concerns, and conservation easements are a centrepiece to that strategy.

For the first half of the 20th century, NYC acquired large tracts of land upstream to create reservoirs for their water. Farms were flooded and villages relocated in the process. In 1989, the federal Safe Drinking Water Act required a new higher standard of water quality. Engineers projected the cost of new treatment facilities to be around $5 billion, then millions annually to operate.

But the new legislation allowed for the protection of watersheds as an alternative. Working cooperatively with the upstream farmers this time, NYC worked with the American Farmland Trust to establish the Watershed Agricultural Council. The City funded 'Whole Farm Plans' and provided $20 million to purchase agricultural conservation easements in the Catskill/Delaware River watershed.

Farmers retained their land, higher standards of agricultural management were implemented, the upstream watershed was protected from intensive use in perpetuity, and New York City saved literally billions of dollars.

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