[Al] Appleton is a bear of a man with a quick wit and disarming candor. In 1990, he became Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and Director of the City’s Water and Sewer system. He immediately faced a dilemma. Unlike most big American cities, New York did not have treatment plants for its tap water. Showing great foresight in the early 1900s, the City had laid huge pipes from the undeveloped Catskill Mountains, far to the north and west, to bring the region’s pristine water down to giant reservoirs near the city. Apart from mechanical filters at the collecting reservoirs to keep out sticks and leaves, and chlorination to kill bacteria, the water went almost directly from the mountains to faucets in apartments in Manhattan and homes in the Bronx.
Starting in the 1980s, though, small farms in the Catskills watershed came under economic pressure. They increased fertilizer use and began selling land to residential sub-developers. As the population grew and land use intensified, the clean water that New York City had taken for granted came under threat. Coupled with a revision to the Safe Drinking Water Act, it looked like New York would need to build a huge treatment plant for Catskills water with a price tag up to $4 billion, along with $200 million more annually to operate the plant.
Instead of going ahead with construction, though, Appleton took a step back and looked to the ownership toolkit. Most everyone assumed a new treatment plant was inevitable. But Appleton reframed the problem. The watershed’s vegetation and soil had been doing a great job breaking down contaminants, trapping sediments, and filtering toxics. The result was admirably high-quality drinking water. Instead of spending enormous sums to treat water downstream, how about investing instead to restore the upstream landscape? Was it possible to avoid spending money at all on a big plant? As Appleton put it, “a good environment will produce good water.” [Continue reading…]