Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, called on state officials Wednesday to revamp their plans for the New York City Watershed territory by scaling back on plans to buy more privately-owned land and placing greater emphasis on flood mitigation efforts to cut the risks faced by upstate communities.
“There has been some movement but it has not been adequate,” Gibson told The Daily Star Wednesday evening. “There is still too much investment in land acquisition. We think there should be more focus on stream mitigation.”
Gibson said his comments reflect the recommendations of his Watershed Advisory Group, made up of a bipartisan cadre of local officials in local and county government positions.
The advisory group is urging that a comprehensive review of reservoir water levels be conducted. Gibson said he and local officials believe that the watershed levels have been kept high, increasing the potential risk of flooding for communities near them.
While he was critical of aspects of the state Health Department’s recommendation to support the acquisition of up to 250,000 additional acres by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) - the city agency that controls the watershed - he praised the “willingness” of the state Department of Environmental Conservation to work in cooperation with local communities.
Gibson’s advisory group said the critique of New York City’s plan to significantly expand the watershed is a “widely shared” view of the members of the Coalition of watershed Towns and the Catskill Watershed Coalition.
The watershed is now one of the world’s largest water supply systems, and its creation decades ago has been the source of nearly constant tension between the upstate communities in and around it and the leaders of New York City. The watershed is one of five large water systems in the country that has been granted a waiver from the requirement to filter its surface water supply.
The management of that system is governed by a Filtration Avoidance Determination (FAD), which the state is now in the process of updating. The draft FAD recommendations call for New York City to spend nearly $40 million on stream management programs and roughly $50 million on land acquisition.
Tompkins Town Supervisor Carl Stuendel, the chairman of the Coalition of Watershed Towns, called the additional funding for land acquisition “not a prudent use of the city’s resources at this time.”
“Instead,” Stuendel said, “those funds should be directed at correcting more pressing threats to the city’s water supply, including protecting communities from flooding from major storm events.”
Ulster County Executive Mike Hein, a Democrat, said he welcomed Gibson’s involvement, while calling on DEP to end its “divide and conquer approach.”
While the reservoir levels are not part of the FAD review, Gibson said they are of deep concern to local officials in watershed towns.
The state Health Department announced last month that its draft FAD revisions grew out of “input from watershed communities, city residents and other stakeholders, including public meetings in Delhi” and several other locations.