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Earth Matters: Protecting Rockland’s Water

Earth Matters focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living. This weekly series is brought to you by Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio.
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by Susan Hellauer

The Bronx girls at Upper Nyack’s Camp Marydell back in the ’60s truly feared just one thing. Not the copperheads. Not the nuns. But —“GAAAK!”—drinking water that tasted like dirt and dead fish.

But we city kids were spoiled rotten: Our tasty tap water came from pristine rain- and snow-fed mountain springs upstate, far from highways, railroad tracks, factories, housing developments, garbage dumps, septic tanks and sewage plants. NYC’s drinking water is still collected from protected sources up in the Catskill and Delaware Watersheds; it is treated and brought down to the city line by gravity alone in a 125-mile engineering marvel of reservoirs and aqueducts.

We drink where we live

Not so, however, for most ex-urban places, including Rockland County. “What we drink comes from the sky here in Rockland County,” said County Executive Ed Day.

Day was joined by county and state officials on Tuesday, June 27 at the Torne Valley Vineyard in Hillburn. He was there to announce that Rockland has been awarded $100,000 by the state to develop a plan to protect a crucial county drinking-water source: the Ramapo Valley Watershed.

water conservation

Legislator Harriet Cornell, Rockland Water Task Force chair, addresses press conference announcing new $100,000 state grant to assess the Ramapo Watershed. L. to r.: Coordinator of the Division of Environmental Resources and chair of the Water Task Force’s Groundwater and Stormwater Committee R. Allan Beers, Water Task Force coordinator Patricie Drake, State Senator David Carlucci, County Legislator Harriet Cornell, County Executive Ed Day. Photo: Susan Hellauer

The funds will be used by the Rockland County Task Force on Water Resources Management  to hire an expert to analyze and assess the watershed. The result will be a management plan to protect and restore the Ramapo and Mahwah rivers and all the smaller streams that feed into that watershed.

“The Ramapo River well field produces approximately 20 percent of Rockland County’s annual water supply,” said Day, standing on the banks of that river, running fast and full. He noted that a year ago he stood on the same spot to declare a drought emergency that brought the Ramapo river down to critical levels. “A deficit of just a couple of inches of rain endangered this water source and put the entire county at risk last year,” he said. “This is a crucial natural resource and it is up to us to protect it.”

The plan will also address flooding in surrounding communities as well as the drop in quality when water levels fall.

water conservation

The Ramapo River from Bridge Street in Hillburn. Photo: Susan Hellauer

A bipartisan, all-in project

In this golden age of political standoffs, Tuesday’s announcement—and the shared quest for plentiful, high-quality drinking water for Rockland residents—brought a welcome moment of bipartisan harmony.

Joining Republican County Executive Day at Tuesday’s press event were two Democrats: County Legislator Harriet Cornell (D-Nyack), and State Senator David Carlucci (D-Rockland) who secured the funding as part of the 2017 state budget. This year’s grant is in addition to $250,000 secured last year by Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D-Suffern) and awarded to the Water Task Force to develop a conservation plan.

While Rockland relies on local rainfall to recharge its watersheds, State Senator David Carlucci noted that water pollution doesn’t stop at the border. “Securing $100,000 to develop a plan for this watershed is the first step towards coming up with a regional solution to improve and protect our drinking water,” said Carlucci. ”We have to bring together experts, advocates and public officials from throughout the region to develop a plan that actually works for water consumers and has buy-in from all of the stakeholders,” he said.

water conservation

A satellite view of the idyllic Ramapo River scene at Bridge Street [far right] showing its proximity to the NY State Thruway [overpass], busy Route 59 passing beneath, commuter rail tracks just north of Route 59, a large private business and private homes. About half a mile to the east is the closed but still monitored Ramapo Landfill, an EPA Superfund site. Image: Google Earth.

A Task Force on a Mission

Legislator Harriet Cornell chairs the Task Force on Water Resources Management, established by the County Legislature and County Executive in 2014. The Task Force is responsible for developing a comprehensive water policy to ensure a safe, cost effective, long-term water supply for the county that incorporates sustainability, demand-side principles and conservation.

Cornell spoke about the planned watershed assessment at the media event, calling it a road map for decision makers and the Task Force:

Safe, clean drinking water is more precious than jewels. Thanks to the community-government Task Force partnership created in 2014, Rockland leads the way in NYS to protect and restore water sources—streams, rivers, corridors and watersheds that replenish the estuary and sustain water resources that are critical to the health and well-being of Hudson Valley residents and the ecosystem.

Cornell also pointed out that this Watershed Assessment and Management Plan would help foster and support economic development for the county.


Who’s watching the water?

water conservationThere’s no guarantee of adequate rainfall, so conservation is key for a county that must preserve, protect and drink what it finds within its borders. The Ramapo well fields—particularly vulnerable to drought—are used by Suez Water NY, which is by far the county’s largest water supplier, with 300,000 customers.

The French multinational water treatment giant withdrew from the county Water Task Force in 2015 after disputing the conclusions of a consultant hired by the Task Force to assess Suez’s water efficiency. But in his remarks on Tuesday, County Exec Day pointed out that Suez Water NY has established its own conservation plan with rebates that can save money for consumers and water for all.

Be water aware

A Rockland official who also attended the grant announcement, R. Allan Beers (Coordinator of the Division of Environmental Resources and chair of the Water Task Force’s Groundwater and Stormwater Committee), spends a lot of time thinking about water.

I asked him what we can do to guard our home-grown supply. “You should think conservation every time you turn the tap on. ‘Do I need to let the water run for hand washing or toothbrushing?’ Simple things like that can save enormous amounts of water,” said Beers. “And be aware of what’s going on in your community. Be aware of proposals for large developments that could impact supply and quality. Just be proactive.”

Learn more:

This article has been updated (7/5/17) to add the website of the Rockland Water Coalition to the “Learn more” section.

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Earth Matters, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio.

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