Nine Million Thirsty New Yorkers and Climate Change

Hudson River Keeper 

The River Keeper is an environmental watch dog group with a long history of cleaning up polluted areas of the estuary and keeping those who pollute accountable. Like many watchdog groups, River Keeper uses lawsuits to enforce rules regarding the estuary’s protection. They even deploy an actual keeper of the river, an amazing guy named John Lipscomb, who surveys the entire estuary in 21 day circuits looking out for potential contamination, cleaning up trash, and monitoring water quality with the help of citizen scientists. We sat down with several River Keeper employees, including the organization’s president Paul Gallay, to discuss how climate change is affecting the estuary.

Impacts: Nine Million Thirsty New Yorkers and Climate Change

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s New York City was growing rapidly and its water supply couldn’t keep up with demand. Rather than restoring the polluted waters of the Hudson, City officials set their sights on the pristine snowmelt coming from the Catskill Mountains 125 miles north of the city. They dammed a few creeks, displaced and haphazardly compensated a few thousand people, built an elaborate system of pipes and aqueducts, and wound up with today’s system of 19 reservoirs within a 1,972 square mile watershed.

Because the water is collected close to the source in the mountains, it's generally very clean and doesn't need to be filtered. Today NYC has the largest unfiltered water system in the US, and the astronomical cost of building a filtration plant keeps the city highly motivated to maintain clean water at the source. The water system isn’t perfect, but it was working. Until now.

Sudden, intense downpours are becoming more frequent under climate change [1], and these intense rain events, like those that occurred during hurricanes Irene and Lee, scour the clay creek beds of the Catskill Mountains and render the water a cloudy (or turbid) mess. Normally water is filtered through natural means after a storm, but this turbid water gets sent right into the major reservoirs and out New York’s taps. In order to maintain water quality the turbid water is diverted away from the reservoirs, causing a host of other environmental problems. River Keeper and the EPA are convening a panel of experts to look into the issue's causes and solutions but one thing is clear: climate change impacts are testing aging infrastructure in new and dangerous ways. 

Adaptations: Flood Buyouts in the Catskills

Hurricane Irene not only muddied the “champagne of water” that New Yorkers enjoy, it also wiped out three towns in the watershed, caused hundred of millions of dollars in damage, and claimed eight lives. Preventative measures enacted after Irene included flood buyouts in which a homeowner in a vulnerable flood plain is offered the value of their home in exchange for leaving the property. Home owners whose houses survived Irene were offered flood buyouts from FEMA, but many vulnerable properties either didn’t qualify or opted out. Then, pressured by residents and a coalition of watershed towns previously skeptical of buyouts, the city of Catskill set aside $15 million for it’s own flood buyout program.

This example is illustrative of two important points about climate change impacts. First, it often takes a dramatic and expensive weather event to change public perceptions. Hurricane Irene showed residents and officials that climate change was real and its impacts dangerous and expensive. Before climate change became an issue, cities were usually aware of the possibility of a 100 year flood but planning was often minimal since the events are rare and the economic risks low. Catskill’s buyout program shows an understanding that intense storms are increasing in frequency and that they demand an urgent readiness in a way a 100 year flood doesn’t. These communities saw the threat as serious enough to take the painful and controversial step of encouraging some residents to leave their homes in the hope of both saving lives and saving the community millions of dollars once the next storm hits.

Secondly, changing perceptions about climate change can make environmental policy more egalitarian. During our talk with Paul Gallay we learned that some funding that was initially earmarked for land acquisition in watershed towns was instead allocated to flood buyouts after Irene. Land acquisition, when residents encourage cities to buy up land to prevent development, was already taking place to buffer reservoirs in the Catskill watershed. However the practice of land acquisition has a legacy of preserving land that is especially scenic (like higher elevation ridges) and often surrounds property owned by wealthier individuals. In the case of Irene the damage was so severe and the future threat so obvious that prior goals of the land acquisition funds were set aside in order to aid the often less affluent residents of low elevation flood plains. This shift could help these communities better cope with the economic struggles that climate change impacts can create.

1. Karl, T. R., and R. W. Knight, 1998: Secular trends of precipitation amount, frequency, and intensity in the United States. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 79, 231–241, doi:10.1175/1520-0477(1998)079,0231:STOPAF.2.0.CO;2