The World's Greatest Drinking Water

Why New York City boasts about its tap water.

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This post is adapted from our new book, Mine!: How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives, available March 2. To learn more about the book, visit minethebook.com.

Credit: Wikimedia, by Kristiaan from Haarlem, The Netherlands - Bru, CC BY 2.0

New Yorkers are rarely a soft-spoken group, particularly when boasting about their city.  Time Out magazine lists fifty reasons why New York is the "greatest city in the world" – greatest skyline, greatest theater, and on and on.  These brags should come as no surprise.  Everyone has heard of the Empire State Building and Times Square.  But you may be surprised at what the magazine lists as the number one reason New York is so great.

Its drinking water.

And you don't need to take the magazine's word for it.  New York tap water routinely wins blind taste contests against even the priciest bottled water.

While New Yorkers may know their tap water tastes great, few know that it comes from 125 miles northwest of the City; and even fewer know that innovative ownership design lies at the heart of providing over a billion gallons of safe and refreshing water to nine million people every day.  But Al Appleton knows.

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."

Thus began an eighteen-month process of more than 150 meetings with local groups in the Catskills, negotiating land management practices to ensure water quality.  One participant described the endless meetings as similar to a "rolling Thanksgiving dinner with relatives you only want to see once a year."  The final agreement was signed by sixty towns, ten villages, seven counties, and environmental groups.  New York City committed to spending $1.5 billion to acquire sensitive lands, restore stream corridors, and fund partnerships that would foster water quality and support economic development in the watersheds.

The results have been impressive.  Water pollution dramatically declined.  New York City payments have proven popular with rural upstate landowners. And the EPA was persuaded that the watershed initiatives would provide safe drinking water, so the federal government has repeatedly waived the requirement that New York City build the multi-billion-dollar treatment plant.  As a result, in purely financial terms, New York came off ahead by investing in natural capital rather than in built capital, investing in green rather than gray infrastructure.  The program has paid for itself many times over.

But what does all this have to do with ownership?  Tomorrow, in our next post, we show how Al Appleton adapted one of the six simple stories of ownership to preserve New York City's premier drinking water.