Property Rights Foundation of America®

Wasting Water
by Carol W. LaGrasse

"To make matters worse, New York City was wasting the water supply which was available." - Rev. Horace Hillery, former Putnam County Historian, in his report "New York City Water," recounting the anger in Putnam County during the 1870's over the City's taking choice farm lands and nearly all the mills for reservoirs.

While visiting an old college friend overnight at her apartment in downtown Manhattan, I noticed that the shower was running at 10:00 p.m. Nothing unusual. But at 10:20, her daughter, the only other person not in the room with us, had still not turned the shower off, nor at 10:30. Finally, at 10:45, the sound of water running in the shower ended. Wow! Not a word from her mother, either.

What's to worry, apartments are not separately metered.

I wondered how property owners in the watershed supplying New York City's reservoirs, would react, considering the hardships they have endured and the pressures they are currently experiencing to facilitate the abundant water supply for the City of New York. The 1.2 million acres of land in the upstate watershed provide 1.4 billions gallons of water daily to the City through 19 reservoirs.

All of the watershed region, both that in the Catskill Mountains and that east of the Hudson, is now under strict regulations that purport to protect the volume and quality of water entering the City's water supply. When the voluminous final new watershed regulations replaced a little booklet of rules in 1997, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) gained the power to veto septic systems, and thus prohibit any new dwelling or business from being constructed. It also gained the power to control the construction of any impermeable surface such as a roof or parking lot near a waterway. New construction must now have large setbacks from waterways, in opposition to the character of the historic villages, where buildings were typically clustered along a street paralleling a stream. In its 1993 environmental impact statement, the DEP confessed that households with incomes less than $30,000 yearly income, a not-insignificant sum ten years ago, would not be able to afford to live with the new septic rules. One study found that the new rules reduce the number of acres in the Putnam County watershed available for residential development from 89,000 to 1,765.

The DEP's Bureau of Lands has been buying up properties in the prime waterway areas, while the State Department of Environmental Conservation relieves the City's costs by buying the properties afterwards. The City also acquires conservation easements that prohibit most uses of properties, effectively turning prime land into nature preserves. In contrast to the State's previous custom of buying up relatively undevelopable mountainous land, the acquisition of prime land in the Catskills is causing concern for the future of the region. The City also is intimidating owners of properties that have historical access through tracts that the City owns into signing revocable access agreements. DEP police patrol the reservoir areas in the Catskills so intensely that some local people complain that they live in a police state. Two years ago people in the mountains were shocked to find DEP "snitch signs" posted along roadways prompting them where they could report violators of the watershed rules.

Over the latter part of the nineteenth century, and into the 1950's, the City was acquiring land by eminent domain for its reservoirs. After the completion of the Ashokan Reservoir, which flooded eleven villages and hamlets on the west side of the Hudson, people were not on guard for the next assault. But the Gilboa Dam in 1926 on Schoharie Creek in the northern Catskills brought the destruction of 430 buildings.

"Dear old town, 'twill soon be flooded, Not a vestige left, or scrap.
And that once proud little hamlet, Will be stricken from the map,
Slow, but sure, the works
' progressing, Soon - yes, at an early date,
Twill be said,
'Gilboa's surrender'd. To the iron hand of fate.'"

- V.D. Mattice, "The Passing of Old Gilboa," Kingston, September 1921

The City aggressively kept prices paid to property owners at an unfairly low level, and forced people out of their houses with little recourse. When the Ashokan was built, a 1905 law allowed the City to take property on ten days' notice and a deposit of one-half the assessed valuation. Assessments were very low compared to market prices. Years of litigation followed.

Over the years, the City has been concerned about the volume of water it needs. Efforts to meter individual houses during the Lindsay Administration mired down in corruption and left a bad taste for metering, however obvious the idea of measuring water consumption sounds. Private houses in the city had been paying a modest water use fee for many years, but it was based on the fixtures, indoors and outdoors, not on consumption measurements. The idea of metering finally took hold a generation after the Lindsay-era corruption. Today, private houses in New York City are metered, but apartment dwellers have been exempt from this conservation and revenue measure.

According to an article in The Wall Street Journal (Ray A. Smith, "Brace Yourself for Another Monthly Bill," October 23, 2003), only abut two million of the nation's roughly 35 million rental households are currently paying a separate bill for their water. According to the article, a rule that is administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration effectively prohibits landlords from charging water use fees to tenants because the fee charging would make the landlords into "utilities" required to meet strict guidelines, including doing professional tests of water-quality. Oddly, or incomprehensibly, the municipality cannot simply bill the tenants directly, much like the electric and gas utility, Consolidated Edison, in New York City has directly billed tenants for their electric and water use for at least a generation, and the telephone companies have routinely billed tenants directly for their telephone usage.

However, the EPA is contemplating a rule change that would eliminate these "burdensome" rules, to quote the article, with the goal of encouraging landlords to install meters for water use at individual apartments and thereby promote water conservation. Tenants' organizations are already protesting that this gives landlords an unfair way to increase charges paid by tenants, according to the article, but it seems obvious that giving water away rather than charging for the actual use by individual tenants is inviting waste as well as forcing conserving tenants to pay unfairly on behalf of wasteful users.

The article states that research has shown double-digit drops in energy consumption in major cities following a switch to being metered from not being required to pay directly for electricity use. Another study cited by the article found that when apartments were metered and charged for water for the first time consumption dropped 18 % to 39%. When they were charged for water use, but not metered, usage dropped less, 6% to 27%.

Going back to my old college chum in Manhattan, it would seem that, if metering were in place, the same motivation that drives her to head across the East River to the Borough of Queens to get better deals on groceries and pet supplies would be likely to incite her to keep her daughter's showers down to five or ten minutes.

You'd think that there would be a moral obligation, considering the harsh impositions on the property owners in the City's water supply region. But such idealism aside, at least you'd think that the property owners out in the mountains would get riled up thinking that they are sacrificing too dearly for their precious water to be drained into the sewers of New York City as though it were worthless.

Even more basically, you'd think that the mayor and bureaucrats in New York City give a darn about the cost of putting millions of gallons of wasted water each day through their water works. And—a point that hit me over thirty years ago when I was a young civil engineer engaged in the design of a sewage treatment plant expansion in a residential area with a stable population—you'd think the authorities would be motivated to meter so that the City would not be paying for wasted sewage treatment capacity.

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