How and why farmers in the Catskills protect New York City’s drinking water

At a recent EDF board meeting, Geoffrey Heal talked about the economic values that ecosystem services provide for our economic well-being. His presentation included a number of case studies, including the New York City Department of Environmental Protection's financial support for farmers in the Catskills to farm in ways that protect the city’s water quality. The key to the business model: farmers benefit by getting financial support from the City of New York, and the city avoids having to go through a costly filtration system to physically remove impurities or contaminants in a series of filters. The city water supply does undergo UV decontamination.

Last week, the staff of EDF’s Office of the Chief Economist decided to see for ourselves how this works in practice. We visited with Gibson Durnford, the East of the Hudson Agricultural Coordinator of the Watershed Agricultural Council, based in Yorktown Heights, New York. A non-profit organization led by local farmers, it started in 1993 to lead and administer the program.

Incentives for farmers and the City are aligned

Gibson explained that customers in New York City consume 1 billion gallons of water a day, which is supplied from the West and East Hudson systems. There is one and a half years of water in storage (550 billion gallons).

If farmers did not protect the Delaware and Catskill water sheds, the City would have to make a an estimated capital investment of $8-10 billion in water filtration plants and spend an additional $100 million annually to operate them. Phosphate is a particular problem, and the city would also have to deal with sediment running off the farms into the water supply system.

For farmers, payments for eco-services compensate and empower private landowners to be surface-water stewards of New York City’s drinking water. Whole farm management plans are agreed with farmers, incorporating best management practices that both support sustainable farming and protect water quality; concentrated manure sources like slurry pits or storage piles are a greater concern than waste in the fields. If fields are well-vegetated with grass, the plants will take up nutrients; the vegetation slows water flow and also makes the soil more porous and increases absorption.

Farmers are provided with investment funds for purposes which include drainage, roading, manure pads, and sward management; conservation easements are purchased (a percentage of market value) which simultaneously lets the farmer retain ownership of the land, releases capital for the owner while ensuring that the land remains available for farming and forestry; the forest program helps farmers with erosion control, sustainable harvesting, and planting on the banks of tributaries.

Conservation in action at an Alpaca farm
We visited Leda Bloomberg and Steve Cole’s Faraway Farm, where they raise Alpaca sheep for their wool. The Watershed Agricultural Council supported the installation of a manure pad, and of a rocky channel along the roadway had drains it to collect the water running off the field and divert it away for infiltration into the soil. Leda and Steve indicated that they had benefited greatly from the advice and support of the Watershed Council. The council is "on the side of the farmers" and is proactive in finding new and better ways to conserve and better their well-being.

The economist Ronald Coase won the Nobel Prize, in part for theorizing (without evidence) that those who pollute could negotiate a solution with those who would benefit from pollution reduction. We were honored and delighted to see his theory being acted upon to such great positive effect for both farmers upstate and the water consumers in New York City. As we left, we had only one question: Doesn’t such a great idea deserve to be replicated?

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