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.

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: March 4, 1861

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  1. Except New York is widely mocked in the waterworks world. While everyone else is required to filter and chlorinate their water, and many states, like Texas, require full flocculation, sedimentation, filtration, and then chlorination, New York is the only city in the country that bribed their way into not even filtering surface water before serving it to customers. This is nothing but propaganda to excuse their absolute cheapness in not doing things properly.

    1. I’d be curious to know how you define doing things “properly”.

      Never mind. I couldn’t care less.

      1. Flocculate, sediment, and then filter. If there are sediments, clean them out. At the very least, remove the dirt.

        Yeah, their idea sounds great when given purple prose from favorable journalists, but all it takes is one infected cow defecating in the wrong spot and you have a giardia outbreak.

        1. How many outbreaks of giardiasis or similar illnesses has NYC had that have been traced to the water supply?

          1. None, they all died from COVID.

          2. Do you like drinking cow shit?

            There’s a psychological aspect to this as well…

  2. I remember my first trip to Sweden and was surprised to find out how hard it was to buy a bottle of water. A few, here and there, outrageously priced. Mineral water mostly.

    The whole country is of the opinion that their water system delivers much better water than you can buy in bottles. And they have a case for it. Right out of the tap in the hotel bathroom sink is as good as you can get anywhere.

    At home in California, I buy water in 5-gallon jugs. It is the same water that is piped to my house, but put through a filtering system owned by a guy who bought that business from a guy who knew what he was doing. Excellent, and no noxious fluorides which I do not want.

    1. … no noxious fluorides which I do not want.

      Position duly noted, General Turgidson. God willing, you will prevail, in peace and freedom from fear, and in true health, through the purity and essence of your natural … fluids.

      1. I think you mean Gen Jack D. Ripper.

        Ironically it is becoming more widely accepted that fluoride in drinking water is poisonous and was never supported by sound science.

        There never has been any evidence of a communist conspiracy around it but in recent years the Chinese are happy to sell it to the U.S. To them it is toxic waste they would otherwise have no use for and have to process to dispose of safely. U.S. water districts dump it in the water systems. And it isn’t even pharmaceutical-grade fluoride compounds you would find in toothpaste. It is just unrefined, toxic waste byproduct from industrial processes.

        If none of that is convincing, please explain to me if you want fluoride in your water, why don’t you add it yourself, instead of getting the nanny-state government to add it to my water so I have to pay to get it filtered out?

    2. “Excellent, and no noxious fluorides which I do not want.” How ironic. The natural waters in Sweden have very high natural fluoride content.

      I brought my kids from USA to Sweden in the 80s. My daughter went to the dentist. The dentist called in all nearby dentists to look because none of them had ever seen a real life cavity before.

      1. Is the fluoride content in Swedish water as high as fluoridated water in the United States? How bad is the dental fluorosis problem in Sweden compared to the United States?

  3. “Appleton” is the perfect name for a New York City official.

    1. Unless they’re Italian, in which case it would have to be….

      1. Now *that’s* funny! 🙂

    2. Or in metric: Applemegagram.

  4. Of course, NYC as the greatest is total denial. Someone making $100000 a year 50 miles from the coasts is living far better than a billionaire in NYC, a Democrat hellscape. Things get done. He is far less stressed and far less frustrated everyday. He is more productive, providing real services and products, instead of bullshit paper shuffling that damages our country. If you really miss tall food for $200 a meal, go visit NY a couple of times a year. Then I saw the original production of Hamilton on Disney+ for $15 with massive collection of movies and shows thrown, in the comfort of my home. Unwatchable crap theater, unlistenable crap music. Glad I did not pay $1500 for a Broadway ticket, after pulling strings. Too hard.

    Ironic. That great NYC water is taken from far away. It is Catskills water, not NYC water from more than 50 miles away. They merely import it, ripping off the locals with insufficient payment. That, NYC does well, rip people off.

    1. NYC should own something else, a rate of violent crime 10 times higher than reported. Cops are forced to throw crime reports in the trash or else get fired.

  5. So NYC the home of total wokness and yenta politics that destroyed the small factory/manufacturing of central and western NY used their massive privledge/power to obtain what they wanted. I find it ironic NYC which forces their far left agenda on the rest of NY only exists by taking water from the “upstaters” and dumping their garbage in central NY (There is a gas station in Waterloo NY at the Thruway exit. 24/7/365 garbage trucks from NYC dump trash in a massive landfill nearby and then fill up on diesel before they start their next run. NYC only exists because it strips resources from real New Yorkers and then dump their waste on “Trump country”..when you are self sufficient you can boast…

  6. How this article is even in Reason is beyond me…NYC has exploited and destroyed NY State for decades..time the downstate bolsheviks political power is reduced.

  7. The water contains copepods which are crustacea visible to the naked eye. This makes NYC water not kosher unless filtered by the user.

    1. As I mentioned above, even in Texas, we are taught about NYC’s exemption to filtering surface water, which is federally mandated

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