4. 1970 to 2000: The Environmental Machine
On July 1, 1976, an oil barge hit a pylon of the Tappan Zee Bridge and dumped 50,000 gallons of number 2 oil into the Hudson River. Given the indignities the river had already endured, the oil spill wasnt much. But it was the last straw for New Yorkers who were tired of living next to fouled water. Over the next 25 years, the state and citizens groups made significant progress in cleaning it up.
New Yorks first clean water legislation was passed in the 19th Century, and several significant efforts were made before 1970 to protect drinking water supplies and regulate sewage. In 1965, for example, Nelson Rockefellers Pure Waters Bond Act released $300 million in state funds for wastewater treatment and in 1965, $300 million was a lot of money. The process gained a great deal more money and power in 1972, when the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments, known as the Clean Water Act, set a national water policy for the first time. The act set effluent limits for sewage plants, established the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, and financed wastewater treatment plants. Federal standards were actually relaxed in amendments to the Clean Water Act in 1977, but New York went in the opposite direction: the state passed 11 clean-water bills in the 1970s, and another 12 in the 1980s.
In a 1996 bond act, voters authorized a major expansion of clean water initiatives, including $790 million for wastewater and habitat restoration and $355 million for safe drinking water. Here are three examples of New Yorks innovative solutions to water problems
New York City Sewage: New York City has had sewage treatment plants since the 1930s, but until 1992 its sludge was dumped into the ocean. The North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, on the Hudson River in Manhattans upper West Side, has helped to change that. Since it opened in 1986, the massive plant has treated about 1.4 billion gallons of sewage a day, including much of the raw sewage that once poured into the river during storm overflows. The plant has a state park built on top of its treatment tanks, including three swimming pools, a restaurant, and sports fields. To replace ocean dumping, the city also developed a new process so that it could sell treated sludge, or "biosolids," as agricultural fertilizer.
Drinking water: In 1989, the EPA issued rules requiring most municipal drinking water supplies to install expensive filtration systems. The drinking water supplies in New York City, Rochester, Syracuse, and other cities are not filtered, and city leaders were eager to avoid the bill. The EPA rules said that no filtration system would be required if a municipality could demonstrate that it had a stringent program to protect its watersheds, and if its water met high standards.
After years of hard negotiation with several dozen townships in the Catskills and Hudson Valley, New York City met those standards with a voluntary agreement signed on January 21, 1997. The agreement included plans to update nine upstate sewage plants, and to renovate dams and reservoirs. It also included a $35 million Agricultural Program designed to preserve the watershed regions farm economy. On a smaller scale, the City of Syracuse worked with the Finger Lakes Land Trust to safeguard lands that drained into Skaeneateles Lake, its primary drinking water source. In the future, voluntary agreements may also be used to safeguard the watersheds of Hemlock and Canadice Lakes, which supply drinking water to Rochester.
Watershed protection: A statewide movement that began in the 1970s has permanently protected thousands of acres of sensitive coastal areas and wetlands. Protecting parkland has always been popular with the public, but the movement really picked up speed in the 1990s when setting aside wetlands and coastal areas proved cost-effective as well.
Jamaica Bay lies between Brooklyn and Coney Island, is one of the last undeveloped stretches of New York Citys 578-mile coastline. The 13,000-acre bay, which is home to more than 300 species of birds, was handed over to the National Parks Service in 1972 and re-named the Gateway National Recreation Area. The following year, Fire Island became a National Seashore and was saved from housing and road development. Storm damage to beach houses elsewhere in Long Island showed the wisdom of preventing construction on a sand bar.
In 1972, the federal Coastal Zone Management Act encouraged states to develop coastal areas only where their impacts would not be harmful to the environment. In 1980, the DEC responded by submitting a management program for the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River, Hudson River, and the states marine coast. In 1982, it also commissioned a survey to determine the impact of acid rain on Adirondack lakes. In 1984, the state began issuing water quality reports every two years. In 1993, it issued a $2.7 million grant to begin a long, difficult clean up of Onondaga Lake. And in 1994, it approved a comprehensive plan for the clean up of Long Island Sound.
One of the most effective state expenditures for clean water came in 1993, and then the DEC helped fund Water Quality Coordinating Committees in 57 New York counties. In the 1990s, citizens watershed organizations like the Seneca Pure Waters Association have become effective watchdogs of water quality across the state.