NEW YORK - Local officials are cheering the involvement of a former state assemblyman — now an administrator at the federal Environmental Protection Agency — in negotiations between New York City and the towns in its watershed.Peter Lopez, Region 2 administrator for the EPA, sent a letter to state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, dated Dec. 28, thanking the DOH for its work in finalizing the so-called Filtration Avoidance Determination for 2017.
The FAD document outlines requirements that the New York City Department of Environmental Protection must follow to avoid filtering drinking water for 9 million users of the water system. Much of the water comes from the Catskill and Delaware watersheds.
Since 1997, FAD requirements have included mandated land acquisitions by the DEP and rules and regulations within watershed lands. The requirements are reviewed and revised every five years, allowing for comments from stakeholders within the watersheds.
Some local stakeholders, however, have complained that their input was ignored in the process.
The Coalition of Watershed Towns is a group of elected officials from towns and villages who advocate for local communities in regard to watershed issues.
Town of Middletown Supervisor Patrick Davis, a coalition member, said, “Only in the last few years have we felt a partnership developing. And, to have Peter Lopez at the federal level working with us will hopefully improve the partnership. Pete is competent and knowledgeable.”
In his letter, Lopez said, "The emphasis is to seek a continued, careful balancing of environmental objectives with the opportunity for achieving other important socio-economic goals for communities located within the watershed."
He said he was pleased with programs that protect water quality through means other than land acquisition — programs such as stream stabilization, flood buy-outs and easement programs that protect agriculture and forestry.
“Lopez has boots-on-the-ground experience and understanding of FAD rules and regulations,” Davis said.
Before joining the EPA in October, Lopez, of Schoharie, represented a seven-county region in the state Assembly since 2007.
Local stakeholders have been studying and collecting their own data to back up their comments, showing water can be kept safe and clean while not destroying economic development within the watersheds.
Data collected by Delaware County Department of Watershed Affairs, shows DEP land acquisitions since 1997 amount to nearly 74,000 acres in Delaware County alone. That land is part of 132,000 acres controlled by the city and state. Use of the remaining land in the watershed is heavily regulated by DEP rules.
David Kluesner, Region 2 chief of public outreach with the EPA, wrote in an email, “The EPA also looks forward to an initial engagement with stakeholders coming up in early 2018.” Issues to discuss, he said, include the status of lands near streams and flood areas, how land acquisitions are directed, how lands in municipalities are looked at, and determining if a "point of adequate protectiveness" has been reached.
Protectiveness in this context is defined as “benefits to water quality from land acquisition,” Kluesner said.
Delaware County Watershed Affairs Commissioner Dean Frazier said, “We welcome a meeting with Peter Lopez, and hope he can influence other parties on issues important to stakeholders, west of the Hudson.”
Stakeholders will come to the table with studies and proposals formulated to improve FAD requirements, he said.
“One study was formulated at town levels,” Frazier said. “It shows what proposed plans look like — for instance, a plan for land acquisition to focus more on water quality by acquiring sensitive lands near streams, rather than the current method of buying land for open space.”
The goal is to protect water and require the DEP to give relief funding while allowing stakeholders to participate in how rules and regulations are enforced, he said.
“We’ve seen progress,” Frazier said. “FAD requirements now stipulate New York City funding for improved or new septic systems, and for storm-water management for small businesses. And I see workable language in the newly released FAD.”