UMass Amherst Professors Helping to Evaluate Plan to Keep New York City Water Pure

AMHERST, Mass. - Two University of Massachusetts professors are helping to evaluate a long-term plan to keep the largest water system in the world pure. Rutherford Platt, a geographer in the geosciences department, and Paul Barten, a hydrologist in the forestry and wildlife management department, are serving on a panel responsible for determining the best way to keep New York City’s water clean, as it travels from upstate New York to metropolitan kitchen sinks. The committee, called the Committee to Review the New York City Watershed Management Strategy, was named by the National Research Council (NRC).

At issue is New York City’s century-and-a-half-old water system, which pipes 1.4 billion gallons of water daily from upstate New York to the city’s 10 million residents, Platt says. The system is composed of 2,000 square miles of watershed land – land that includes and surrounds the streams that flow into the system’s 19 reservoirs. Today, the purity of the supply is threatened by several factors, according to scientists: outdated sewage systems, new development, and runoff from farmland, all of which can pollute the water. The New York City water supply, like that of metropolitan Boston, is not currently filtered, Platt says. Both systems, he adds, are under pressure from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to filter their water supplies unless they can protect water quality through watershed management programs.

In an effort to address the problem, city and upstate officials have written a 1,000-page agreement, which calls for repairing faulty sewage treatment plants, purchasing land bordering reservoirs, and tightening pollution laws. The task of the committee, Platt and Barten say, is to determine whether the plan will work to keep the water clean, and whether it will protect both the environment and the public’s health. Over the next two years, committee members will meet with relevant officials, tour watershed areas, and prepare a major report to the city on the feasibility of the city’s strategy. Other experts on the panel include an aquatic chemist, a lake ecologist, an urban planner, a microbiologist, a rural sociologist, and an engineer who specializes in disinfection.

"It’s a new era of resource management, because there is no more water to be found," says Platt. "We have to be careful with the water that we have." The watershed management plan’s pricetag isn’t cheap, at roughly $2.2 billion. But, notes Barten, the plan would allow the city to meet federal environmental protection guidelines "at a fraction of the cost of clamping a filtration plant at the end of the pipe. Pollution prevention is much less expensive." (Platt notes that desalinating seawater is not an option because the process is prohibitively expensive).

Platt, a professor of geography and planning law, is an expert in water and land use, as well as floods and coastal issues. He has served on six NRC committees, most recently chairing a study of flood control issues affecting Sacramento and the Central Valley of California. He also is vice chair of a study on the costs of coastal hazards conducted by the Heinz Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment in Washington, D.C.

Barten’s background is in forestry, particularly hydrology and watershed management. He combines field measurements and computer modeling, using variables such as terrain characteristics and vegetation and soil type, to characterize the quantity and quality of water over large, diverse areas. He taught for nine years at Yale University, where he won awards for exceptional teaching and advising, before joining the UMass faculty in September. Barten has served on several science and technical advisory boards, including the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Quabbin Watershed advisory board, which he chairs.