Shallow waters

Ashokan Reservior (photo by Dion Ogust)

Last Thursday, the New York Times enraged readers across the nation by devoting their entire editorial page to letters from Trump supporters. This editorial stunt appears to be a ham-fisted attempt to engage with the vast America that lies outside of their core audience of highly educated, upper-class urbanites.

If they want to get out among the hoi polloi a little more, they could decide anytime to start properly covering their own watershed. Low-hanging fruit, guys.

On December 28, officials released New York City’s latest Filtration Avoidance Determination — the agreement that keeps the city’s water clean in its upstate watershed, and lets them keep drinking it without building a $10 billion filtration plant. The latest FAD spans 114 pages and commits $1 billion of city money to a host of water protection and local economic development projects. It’s the billion-dollar prenup that will set the terms of the city’s awkward and not-entirely-consensual marriage to the Catskills for the next decade.


The new FAD is the first major local water news to come out since my cofounder and I shut down the Watershed Post, the Catskills local online news outlet we ran from 2010 til last March. Predictably, I’m getting crabby about how it’s being covered. Since the draft document dropped last July, I’ve been scouring local news outlets for FAD coverage. So far, there have been just a handful of stories in the local press, none of them terribly deep.

The other day, I was delighted to see what looked like an in-depth story on the FAD in the New York Times, with a thrillingly large photo of the Ashokan reservoir plastered across the top.

Alas, not so. Here we had what amounted to a rewritten press release, stuffed with facts and figures. The story gave a decent scientific and technical overview of what the city’s water system is and does, but it was distressingly light on the hard part: politics. Reporter Winnie Hu notes that the FAD negotiations between city, state, federal and Catskills local representatives took six months, but you’d be hard pressed to find any evidence of the blood, sweat and tears that went into them.

“The city’s investment in the water system has created local construction jobs, and funded development loans to hospitals, restaurants and small businesses, a far cry from the economic distress in many parts of northern New York,” Hu writes, glossing over decades of political jockeying over water in one breezy sentence.

Like Luke Skywalker, I have become cantankerous in exile. “Amazing,” I said to my uncaring computer screen. “Every word of what you just said was wrong.”

It’s true that New York City employs people in the watershed. That counts as job creation only if you don’t try to account for the jobs lost on the other side of the ledger to regulation; even if you accept that this price is worth paying, it’s inarguably real. The money that the city invests in local economic development isn’t a gravy train; it’s meant to offset the high cost of intense regulation. As for the Catskills being a “far cry” from economic distress — that’s about as accurate as us being part of “northern New York.”

Hu’s all-too-tidy summation of our local political pickle is typical of a lot of writing about the watershed. New York City’s water system has been held up time and again as a neat example of how governments can stave off environmental degradation by assigning property rights, and ensuring that landowners get paid not to pollute (the ideas of legendary economist Ronald Coase in action, for those who have been following along in class).

That’s all true, on some level. But to cast the city’s fraught relationship with its upstate watershed as a simple fee-for-service transaction — to say that paying for clean water works just fine, and leave it at that — is to ignore the details, in which the devil is.

Covering watershed issues in a way that truly does justice to their scope and complexity is tough. For one thing, the subject material is fearsomely wonky. Explaining it often takes paragraphs upon paragraphs of government-acronym-laden background just to get to the point. More challenging is the opacity of the process. Negotiations over proposed regulations mostly happen behind closed doors, and much of the real talk about what’s going on is inaccessible to reporters as well as the general public. Officials are often reluctant to talk about sensitive watershed issues out of school; there is much at stake in these delicate negotiations, both for the city and for local stakeholders, and no one wants to upset the apple cart.

But there are some great stories here. Like the time our go-getting erstwhile Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo, launched a surprise attack on a handful of tiny rural watershed hospitals for flushing things like expired Oxycontin — even though that’s exactly what the New York State Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement had been telling them to do with it all along.

That was one of the first stories I covered for the brand-new Watershed Post, back in 2010. For a wonky water issue, it was pretty juicy stuff: emergency meetings, administrative chaos, officials posturing angrily, irate nursing home directors complaining about being “up to our eyeballs” in controlled substances.

If any New York City news outlet had been there for those meetings, they would have made hay out of it, and a compelling tale about the complexity of water negotiations might have made it onto a larger stage. Instead, we got a brief echo chamber of rewrites of Cuomo’s press release, crowing about having rescued the city’s water from stray pharmaceuticals — leaving the more interesting story to a couple of tiny resource-strapped local news outlets (one of which was basically just me playing sixteen different instruments at once, like Bert from Mary Poppins).

New York’s fiendishly complicated water system is vitally important — no, even that is an understatement. It is our greatest city’s most precious treasure. Bottom line: If the New York Times can send reporters to Antarctica — hell, if they can send them to pop-up farm-to-table dinners held by Brooklynites in deepest Delaware County — they can damn well send one to Margaretville to cover watershed meetings every once in awhile.

I may not be running a news outlet on a shoestring anymore, but still, if you want something done, you have do it yourself. So here’s my belated New Year’s resolution: As the new FAD goes into effect, you’re going to hear some noise about it in this column space. I would love to hear from you, too. Readers, if you’ve got a story to tell about navigating the watershed’s bumpier terrain, whether it’s a land acquisition, a negotiation over a septic system, or a business wrestling with watershed rules, please write.

There’s a lot in those 114 pages. But as a wonky reporter type, I’m most excited about an upcoming independent scientific review of the city’s water protection efforts, which is expected to take three years and involve meetings open to the public. I can only hope the Times will send somebody.

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