Catskills watershed lends its expertise across the pond

Left to right: Sally Fairbairn, Phillippa Pearson, Adam Bosch, and Diane Galusha

When Danielle Hitt of Welsh Water, a private water and sewage company in Great Britain, told her colleagues that three administrators of the Catskills watershed were coming to visit Wales this March, the response was excitement: “When will they be here? Are we going to meet them?” Hitt jokingly called the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) “the Beyoncé of the water industry.”

Phillippa Pearson, Welsh Water’s catchment (watershed) manager agreed, “What’s always recognized as the global industry leader is the work that’s happened in the Catskills area, the area that supplies drinking water to New York City.”

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“We’ve hosted visitors from the U.K., Canada, China, Singapore, India, Chile, Australia,” said DEP representative Adam Bosch. “They’ve all studied what we’re doing here, studied the scientific results we’ve published, and want to learn about what we are doing, to replicate all or part of it in their countries.”

On a visit to the mountainous central Wales district called the Brecon Beacons, which faces many of the same water supply challenges as the Catskills, Bosch told officials about such DEP initiatives as stream management, designed to reduce suspended sediment in water, and intensive ongoing water testing, a topic of great interest to the Welsh. Also on the trip was Diane Galusha of the Catskill Watershed Corporation (CWC), which administers the New York City-funded septic and sewage treatment programs. The third traveler was Sally Fairbairn, chair of the Watershed Agricultural Council, which has engaged farmers in watershed protection since 1994.

Historically there have been conflicts between the DEP and local residents ever since the Ashokan Reservoir was built in the Town of Olive in the early 1900s, but over the past 20 years the DEP has been gradually making efforts to be a good neighbor. In 1997, DEP signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), outlining ways it would offer benefits to residents in exchange for help in keeping water clean around the reservoirs. Upstaters still sometimes have to assert their rights, as when DEP was releasing vast amounts of muddy water into the lower Esopus Creek to keep the turbidity out of the city water supply. But the city’s ability to avoid building a multibillion-dollar filtration plant is partly due to its success at mobilizing the cooperation of locals, particularly farmers, and the Welsh have been studying that model with the hope of adapting it to their use.

Farmer driven reforms

Wales has thousands of sheep and a smaller number of cattle in pastures that border waterways feeding the 79 reservoirs run by Welsh Water, the one of ten water and sewerage companies in England and Wales. Drinking water is heavily treated before it leaves reservoirs on the way to the company’s three million customers. Due to the undesirable taste and odor of the treated water, as well as the enormous expense of maintaining treatment plants, Welsh Water is seeking to learn lessons from the Catskills in how to get farmers to cooperate in keeping water resources clean.

The Watershed Agricultural Council, primarily active in Delaware County, was started three years before the MOA was signed, said Fairbairn, a longtime dairy farmer. “The Ag Council was created to represent the farmers in their dealings with the DEP,” she explained. “We had the ability to talk with farmers and provide a trustworthy outlet. Farmers are stewards of the land anyway, so protecting the water is not a foreign concept to them.”

One of the Ag Council’s most important programs is nutrient management planning. “Farmers often spread their manure on the field that’s most convenient,” said Fairbairn. “The one close to the barn, or where they just finished mowing the grass. When a planner visits a farm, they put together a map of the property based on soil samples. It helps you figure out which field needs the manure, which one doesn’t. It achieves a better level of fertility in the fields.” The process also keeps excess manure from running off into streams. By keeping track of manure spreading records, farmers earn credit toward buying manure handling machines and maintaining them better.

Precision feed management similarly helps farmers spend less on grain for the cows. Instead they use more homegrown forage, decreasing the load of phosphorus in the soil and runoff into the streams.

Agricultural intervention had a dramatic effect on Delaware County’s Cannonsville Reservoir, said Bosch. In the early 1990s, the reservoir turned neon green every summer from a phosphorus-fed algae bloom which seriously impaired water quality. The city upgraded its treatment plants, and the Ag Council began recruiting farmers to help by fencing livestock out of the streams and improving storage of feed and fertilizer. It took over a decade, but testing showed the amount of phosphorus going into the reservoir dropped by 98 percent. The water no longer turns green.

Four vital principles inspire farmers to trust in the Ag Council. Membership is voluntary, the process is led by farmers, any measures the farmers are asked to take are fully funded by the city, and all programming is science-based, backed up by research. Fairbairn was asked to make presentations to Welsh farmers in the hope of inspiring their cooperation.

“They responded really well,” reported Hitt. “It came out loud and clear that in the Catskills it was very much led from community efforts, farmer-led. Everyone agreed with that. They said it’s the model we want to do.”

With the approach of Brexit, Welsh Water and the government have an opportunity to negotiate new agreements with farmers. The European Union has been paying subsidies to farmers that will have to be replaced once Britain leaves the EU. One option is including a premium for farmers who voluntarily undertake projects to increase the efficiency of their farms while protecting water quality.

1.5 million tests

Water testing is vital to the success of the DEP reservoir system. “In the watershed, not counting the five boroughs, we make almost 1.5 million tests per year,” said Bosch. Testing is done in the field, in labs, and by robotic monitoring stations. In Wales, when a problem with taste, odor, or protozoa shows up at a treatment plant, officials go up into the watershed and try to find out where the problem is coming from. “We see it coming at us long before it gets to us,” said Bosch, “so we can respond quickly. Wales is very interested in our monitoring program, where we test, what we’re testing for, and how it helps us make decisions about managing water. Every decision we make is based on science.”

“It’s nowhere near the kind of testing we do,” Hitt confirmed. “We were in awe.”

Galusha explained to Welsh officials how the CWC uses city funds to repair and replace home septic systems for free, in the case of full-time residents, and pays 60 percent of the costs for part-timers. However, the agricultural issues are more urgent in Wales. “They’re going for the low-hanging fruit,” Galusha noted.

Representatives of Welsh Water and the Welsh government will be coming to the U.S. in September to learn more. The approach taken in Wales has been in place for centuries, said Hitt. “Changing it is going to be like turning a tanker. It’s going very slowly, but we’re getting there.”

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