This post was taken from our new book, Mine !: How the hidden rules of property control our lives, available March 2nd. To learn more about the book, visit minethebook.com.
Photo credit: Wikimedia, by Kristiaan from Haarlem, Netherlands – Bru, CC BY 2.0
New Yorkers are rarely a soft spoken group, especially when they boast of their city. Time Out magazine lists fifty reasons New York is “the greatest city in the world” – largest skyline, largest theater, and so on and so forth. These bragging rights should come as no surprise. Everyone has heard of the Empire State Building and Times Square. But you’d be surprised what the magazine lists as the main reason New York is great.
His drinking water.
And you don’t have to take the magazine’s word for it. New York tap water routinely wins blind taste competitions against even the most expensive bottled water.
While New Yorkers know their tap water tastes good, few know that it came from 125 miles northwest of the city. and even fewer know that innovative property design is at the heart of providing nine million people with over a billion gallons of safe and refreshing water every day. But Al Appleton knows.
Appleton is a bear of a man with a quick mind and disarming candor. In 1990 he became Commissioner of the New York Department of Environment and Director of the city’s water and sewage systems. He was immediately faced with a dilemma. In contrast to most major American cities, New York did not have any sewage treatment plants for tap water. By the early 20th century, the city had shown great foresight, laying giant pipes from the undeveloped Catskill Mountains far north and west to bring the region’s pristine waters to huge reservoirs near the city. Aside from mechanical filters on the collection bins to keep sticks and leaves out and chlorination to kill bacteria, the water flowed almost directly from the mountains to taps in Manhattan apartments and houses in the Bronx.
However, from the 1980s onwards, small farms in the Catskills watershed came under economic pressure. They increased fertilizer use and started selling land to sub-developers. As the population grew and land use increased, the clean water that New York took for granted was threatened. Coupled with a revision of the Safe Drinking Water Act, it looked like New York would have to build a huge wastewater treatment plant for Catskills water costing up to $ 4 billion, along with $ 200 million more annually, to operate the system.
Instead of continuing with the build, Appleton stepped back and looked at the Owners Toolkit. Almost everyone assumed that a new wastewater treatment plant was inevitable. But Appleton has redefined the problem. The vegetation and soil of the watershed had done a great job breaking down pollutants, trapping sediments, and filtering out toxins. The result was admirably high quality drinking water. How about investing in restoring the upstream landscape instead of spending huge sums on water purification downstream? Was it possible to avoid spending money on a large system at all? As Appleton put it, “a good environment will produce good water.”
So began an eighteen month process with more than 150 meetings with local groups in the Catskills to negotiate land management practices to ensure water quality. One attendee described the endless gatherings as akin to “rolling Thanksgiving dinner with relatives you only want to see once a year”. The final agreement was signed by sixty cities, ten villages, seven counties and environmental associations. New York City pledged to spend $ 1.5 billion to purchase sensitive areas, restore river corridors, and fund partnerships that would promote water quality and support economic development in the watersheds.
The results were impressive. Water pollution decreased dramatically. Payments in New York City have proven popular with landowners in upstate rural areas. And the EPA believed that the watershed initiatives would provide clean drinking water. Therefore, the federal government has repeatedly waived the requirement that New York City must build the multi-billion dollar wastewater treatment plant. For purely financial reasons, New York has invested in natural capital rather than building capital, investing in green rather than gray infrastructure. The program has paid off many times over.
But what does all this have to do with property? Tomorrow, in our next post, we’ll show how Al Appleton adapted one of the six simple ownership stories to preserve New York’s most important drinking water.