Opening For Progress, Late Winter Lessons
was, to be sure, a victory for the Watershed communities when
New York City’s deputy mayor stood at the dilapidated
Gilboa Dam recently and said “we recognize the cost of
not having done the appropriate maintenance” and “we’re
not going to make that mistake again.” And when he acknowledged
that “the City hasn’t always been the best neighbor”
it hardly came as a revelation to most of us. Still and all,
the significance of his actually saying it publicly wasn’t
lost on us either. The surprise to many is that city government
isn’t actually deaf, it’s just in the habit of comporting
itself as if what the Watershed Communities have to say about
the Watershed communities isn’t actually audible. It is
audible but also, they’re not deaf.
Partly because they are capable of hearing us and of responding
when they really need to, we may be entering a period now when
we can negotiate on genuinely equal footing with DEP, and when
we may be able to accomplish many things we’ve tended
to view as unattainable or at least, less than realistic. Few
of these things that are really needed actually are unrealistic.
That’s because the City can’t really afford not
to do them. Some examples? Full DEP funding for the operation
& maintenance of every wastewater treatment plant in the
watershed. Adequate funding as needed to repair every residential
septic system that needs it. Streambank stabilization programs
funded at a scale necessary to actually stabilize the streambanks
that need stabilizing. And so on. But just those three alone
would be an excellent start. And all of them aren’t just
possible, they’re possible now because timing is everything.
What makes them possible is two things. The first is that the
cheap solution for the City, continued unfiltered water, is
peace in the watershed. And the price of peace is simple, it’s
doing the right thing and funding what they need to here for
our communities, for our ecosystem, and for the quality of the
water. Even if they do these things for the wrong reason - because
we’ll scream bloody murder if they don’t - they
will do them if they have to. Just like they’re fixing
the Gilboa Dam, just like they’ve opened up the Ashokan’s
overflow channel, and just like they’re dropping the reservoir
levels so the rains don’t wash us away.
The second reason these things are possible is that the City
frankly can’t afford a watershed range war, fought in
the light of national media and in full view of the US Environmental
Protection Agency with its final blessing authority over the
City’s FAD. Should the issues come to political blows
we would kick their asses, it would cost them thousands of dollars
per New York City household and they know this perfectly well.
But that would require a political solidarity in the watershed
we’ve yet to see, and won’t unless we start working
at it seriously.
Our political army, should we need it, is the Coalition of Watershed
Towns. And because we want to be supporters of the Coalition
we’re constantly exhorting them to fight smart, not stupid
battles. In recent years they haven’t listened much, shilling
for the Titanic Belleayre Resort project for instance, wading
in on divisive issues like large parcel, or focusing on tertiary
things like hunting and trapping rights on city-owned lands.
These campaigns are like trying to sack Rome by striking Mongolia.
But they’re also things that divide our towns, piss off
lots of our people, and render us impotent for the union of
our common interests. DEP loves it when we do that, pick our
political battles so shortsightedly we never even get close
to the objectives we need to take hold of. And as long as we
keep doing it, we’re not going to get what we need. Our
hats are off by the way, to Supervisor Jerry Fairbairn and the
town board of Hardenburgh for calling things by their right
name and opting out of the Coalition until it gets its act together.
We certainly hope it does. But it’s going to take more
public input into the organization’s direction, better
leadership, and the inclusion of perspectives reflecting those
prevalent east of Delaware County.
At The Phoenicia Times, we’ve taken a certain amount of
flak over the years for encouraging a grown-up acceptance of
DEP and the legitimacy of its mission, irrespective of its historically
corrupt and brutal origins. But that is the past and not the
present reality of the agency’s charge. The present reality
is not, to be honest, all that bad. No, they’re not always
the best neighbors but they can hear us, they are listening,
and when they have to, as with flood control issues, they have
proven they’ll respond. To us, that’s proof of a
working relationship and an acknowledgement of the mutual self-interest
it serves for both parties. That’s a major shift that
began under the agency’s previous commissioner and a testament
to the wisdom of its new one. Still, it’s our job to establish
the dialogue we need with them, and if we fail to do it now
we’ve no one to blame but ourselves.