The following interview with Christopher
O. Ward, Commissioner of NYC’s Department of Environmental
Protection was conducted June 16th at DEP’s Kingston offices
by Brian Powers, publisher of The Phoenicia Times
and The Olive Press newspapers.
BP: Commissioner Ward, I’m
guessing you didn’t hear about your job through the New
York Times. Maybe you could tell us about how you did find your
way to DEP, and when did thinking about water quality become a
big part of your life?
CW: I worked in and out of government for most
of my career. I’d been with the City before in economic
development, I’d been with the energy office and did energy
and environmental policy there. I was in the private sector in
the shipping business for a while, and then I spent 5 years being
the chief at the Port Authority of NY and NJ. I did all of the
long term strategic planning for that agency. And then from there
I became knowledgeable about a lot of environmental issues, not
the reservoir issues but environmental policy. The Port Authority
develops the port facilities, the airports, and so doing large-scale
development and handling a large agency like the Port Authority
was the background. After Sept 11 there were some political changes
at the Port Authority and Mayor Blumberg heard that I was thinking
about leaving and offered me the DEP job.
How much of your job is spent thinking about these water-related
issues and how much is spent on other things?
Almost 90 percent of what we do is water-related, whether it’s
wastewater treatment in NYC, whether it’s water and sewer
distribution within the city, but I would say a good half of what
I do is water-supply related, the reservoirs, the aqueducts, the
shafts… We’ve just gone through a whole new capital
plan for the agency and I’ve shifted focus, after having
been an agency that did wastewater treatment within the city,
shifted focus to water-supply, as I see the water supply system
as our real critical challenge right now.
The City’s still seems to be doing a pretty good job
of acquiring lands from voluntary sellers at this moment…
I’m delighted you say that ..(laughs)
Are you concerned the numbers might not be where you’d
want them to be?
Well, they’re not where we’d like them to be. We think
we’ve done a great job and I appreciate the way you put
that. The willing-seller, willing-buyer model only takes you so
far, and we have been offering to buy property for a long time.
And because of that, getting the next acquisitions, each one gets
harder and harder. But we think we’re making progress, it
continues to work well for us, but we have made some changes in
how we acquire. We’ve shortened up the time for the contracts
under review so the sellers know sooner. We’ve increased
the down payment so the sellers have value in their pocket earlier.
So we’ve tweeked and looked at ways that we can become a
more attractive buyer. But in the long run what we need to do
is link economic development and land acquisition with our program.
And we’ve begun to talk to the Watershed Ag Council as well
as CWC, about what the Watershed Land Acquisition program might
be in the next five to ten years
Are the escalating property values in the Catskills impeding
your ability to do this?
It’s not really impeding it. It’s making it a little
bit more expensive. But the second-home issue escalating property
values has been a concern, particularly East-of- Hudson but also
up here West-of Hudson. But the City’s so committed to this
that if we have a fair market value appraisal for a piece of property
and it’s valuable to us, we’ll buy it. While the prices
may have risen and the people who want to sell have the benefit
of that, we’re still going to buy. Our issue is that we
need to do it quicker for the seller.
So under Federal court order is there a specified number of
acres you must acquire, or is it a target only.
It’s a target only. It’s an aggressive target, we
think we’ll make it, and we’re looking for ways of
Let me ask you about the reservoirs. How’s security
going at the Ashokan reservoir?
We think that security is going well. Having said that, the community
is well aware that we have closed the road over the Ashokan dam.
And that has a local community impact that we recognize and we
believe are attempting to deal with it. Unfortunately post September
11, the frequency of indirect or direct information from terrorist
networks often identifies water supply as high on the list of
targets. The Ashokan dam and the Ashokan road as well as our Kensico
dam and Kensico road are vulnerable locations to significant attack
jeopardizing the water supply.
Now that particular location in Olive, “the lemon squeezer”,
is obviously a very narrow configuration of the road and of the
dam structure. I think the thing that people are a little confused
about is they understand OK, this section of the road is blocked,
but for the last number of months there haven’t actually
been any people there, just a couple concrete barriers. If we’re
really talking about determined terrorists…
What people are noticing is that earlier our department had the
benefit of Department of Corrections police who were assigned
from the State to those fixed, manned locations. Our police appraisal
of the site with barriers and police capability in the area is
sufficient to keep a large truck which is really the issue, not
a bicyclist not a pedestrian, off that constrained area is the
approach. So we think on balance, we’ve recognized that
manning, timing and all that is a cost, we think we’ve restricted
access in a way that keeps it protected. But since September 11,
in the whole water supply area, we will have spent over $100 million
in security efforts around all of our reservoirs and all of our
shaft sites, whether it’s infrared cameras, sensors, hardening
of doors, electronic locks, sensor wire. Without detailing where
we’ve done it, we’ve put an enormous amount of money
into protecting the water supply system.
Also on the subject of the Ashokan, the Catskill Mountain
Railway has a right-of-way which traverses basically the whole
north side of the reservoir. And while the time-frame for its
potential development is somewhat uncertain, I think they are
hopeful of being able to get the railroad open at some point on
their leased property. Does your agency have unusual concerns
The difference is consistent, fixed use from that kind of business,
that kind of attraction, is something that we can work with. That’s
where you have a known commodity, you know what they’re
doing, you can coordinate information. You’re not dealing
with a situation that open access or road access would create.
So I’m sure we could work something out, as long as we’re
exchanging information, timetables, that sort of thing.
You had an approval, an extension by the US EPA quite recently
of the FAD. I would take it you’re pleased with that..
I would go a step further and say I’m delighted. I think
this is one of the great social, environmental experiments that
has worked successfully, and it just got extended again.
The issues for the watershed communities are ones that continue
to be complex for us. There is, depending on one’s point
of view, either a lot or maybe not so much money available to
the watershed as a whole and to its individual communities. The
total amount of money is on the order of 250 million
That’s just for land acquisition. That’s total, for
this 10-year timeframe.
Okay but apart from that, there are also a number of water
quality protection programs that are administered by CWC, and
frankly the funding levels on those have been viewed throughout
the Catskills as very problematical. Let me give you
a case in point. There are streambank stabilization problems all
over the watershed and in Phoenicia we’ve had 5 backyards
falling into the Esopus Creek. A remediation program is finally
about to start, but it took over 5 years of meetings and inter-agency
discussions during which time most of those backyards and a couple
of outbuildings fell into the creek and washed into the reservoir.
Now, one would think the City would want to look at these kinds
of situations with some sense of urgency, and have the funding
available to deal with them. Under the funding levels of the original
MOA that was clearly a problem. Programs ran out of money early,
septic system repair for instance, was terribly underfunded. And
the rate at which sewer treatment plants have been built has been
very slow. Phoenicia is now slated for its plant, but it’s
#11 on a list of 22 that need to get built, and it’s been
7 years already. So there are real concerns about the resources
that have been made available so far.
Let me say right off the top that that’s
unfortunate. Because the city is committed to spend almost $1.2
billion throughout all of the FAD and MOA agreements. There has
never been a lack of funding commitment for these programs, and
the city, I believe, has demonstrated consistently that funding
commitment. What we have struggled with and I think we need to
do a better job of, and it’s a matter of partnership and
communication, is getting work done. And that means setting priorities,
negotiating contracts, implementing work, and that day to day
management of this partnership is really to my mind been where
we need to focus more of our efforts. Because given over $1.2
billion in funding, it hasn’t been the lack of financial
commitment. But what we’ve struggled with is how do you
put together this big, this complex, this multidimensional a program,
recognizing all the community differences and issues. And that
I think is a real challenge.
If you go back and you think about what a company,
if you were a private sector company and you were delivering services,
and you said your business plan was to deliver services to the
multiple community perspectives whether it’s stormwater.
Whether it’s septic. Whether it’s economic development.
Whether it’s land acquisition, whether it’s forestry.
Whether it’s agriculture. If it’s all the things you
said this business needs to do and spend a billion dollars on,
how quickly could it get done? I think you’d find that spending
and implementing and managing all these programs is an enormously
complex and difficult endeavor.
The city has always been committed to funding
these programs, but what we’ve struggled with is how do
we set priorities, how do we create local partnerships, and how
do we get the work done.
Well, a lot of that decision making seems to happen through
the Catskill Watershed Corporation. And CWC has at times, their
own frustrations at dealing with your agency.
Without a doubt. Let me state again that dealing with the City
of New York as a bureaucracy which is spending and protecting
NYC residents’ money, over a billion dollars, there is process,
regulations, legal requirements that do mount up and cause frustration.
They can cause frustrations for the people who work for the City.
But that’s what I mean by finding a way to get things done
sooner rather than later, setting priorities and problem solving.
I think if we fall back to the idea that we’re not in this
together and the City’s not committed to this, and there’s
not an agreement to go forward, that’s when we don’t
make progress. If we all say let’s roll up our sleeves and
get stuff done, that’s ¯from my year’s experience
now ¯ when we’ve really been successful. And I think
we’ve shown with that kind of focus things have gotten done.
The contracts, except for the community septic are all now done.
All the FAD contracts are done. The wastewater treatment projects
have gone forward and the next level of community funding is going
forward. We might not have done it fast enough, there might have
been problems with how we got there, but everything that we said
we’d do, we are now doing or in the process of doing and
everything we said we’d fund, we’ve funded.
Let’s talk about the broader aspects of the relationship
between the City and the watershed towns. Most people here see
the City’s role as inherently restrictive of things individuals
and developers might want to do, and there’s a widespread
perception that in the Catskills we live under the most stringent
water quality restrictions in the country, maybe in the world.
And because of that, there are ways both tangible and intangible
that we pay for it, or that it costs us that we may or may not
be fairly compensated for by the City.
I know where you’re headed. Putting aside the compensation
for what the MOA does, I think there clearly does remain a skepticism
about the city and how much regulation is imposed by the city
that otherwise wouldn’t have been imposed. And there is
also obviously the whole history of what is the city even doing
here, having constructed the reservoirs, or having anything to
say about what happens in and around them. And that unfortunately
continues to rear its head, and it often clouds progress because
people need to come to terms with that sense of the relationship
between the City and the upstate towns.
I think the answer from my perspective, where
this all leads us, is that it’s a vision of the reservoirs,
the money that we have spent in water quality, and the commitment
we’ve made to it that’s creating an environment for
the Catskills which in the long run is enormously positive. Cleaning
up the environment, making sure that septic systems and wastewater
treatment is at the level best that it can be. Making sure that
streams function well as streams and that that the reservoirs
are clean and you can fish in them. All of that is about a larger
vision or a larger environmental vision for all of the watershed
towns. And I think if you look at growth elsewhere in the country
and you look at the issues of communities particularly like the
Catskills which has such a great history and heritage of natural
resource and beauty and woods and towns and streams, I think the
concept has been to enhance that and make that valuable, and to
make that a part of the base life, just what is the Catskills?
Without that, what would the Catskills be? So I think that’s
from the City’s perspective the kind of a partnership that
we wanted to build on when we put all the funding into it.
You know in America everybody who owns a piece
of property, it’s their land and they want to be able to
do what they want with it. That’s a natural reaction. Having
said that, if you live next door to someone whose septic system
isn’t being taken care of and it’s constantly causing
problems, you’d like to have that taken care of as well.
And I think if we think of all of the environmental issues that
the Catskills face, this is bringing real value to that environmental
agenda which allows the towns to grow and prosper and grow into
what the Catskills can be after you’ve preserved that. So
that’s my vision for it.
Some of the anxieties that remain though,
are fueled by things that people read and hear, often things that
are heavily spun for political or business reasons, regarding
the City’s long-term plans. Now some of us are aware that
back in January, 21 environmental groups apparently made some
kind of request of your agency. And that has been characterized
by some in the watershed as an attempt to create a regional planning
board that would supercede the authority of local planning boards.
Well, let me state first that there are clearly
advocates and constituents upstate and around the watershed and
we also have advocates and constituents around the city who are
constantly talking to DEP about DEP should be doing. There is
in no way, shape or form any discussion about creating some super-regional
planning association that DEP would bring to bear and usurp local
land use, zoning requirements or land use planning efforts or
any of that. That is not in the City’s interest and it’s
clearly not within our rights, or where we see the partnership
under the MOA.
Having said that what you saw was a focused interest
on the part of a lot of environmental land use advocates within
the City but also some people upstate, to talk about a vision
of the Catskills and how it might grow and how it might prosper.
But that is part of what I guess would call this great mix of
views for what the Catskills should be. Going back to my earlier
answer, our view is that the Catskills have a great future, and
that future can be built upon in an environmental agenda, which
is what the MOA and the FAD is all about. And they are not mutually
exclusive if done in a long-term, thoughtful manner. And I just
think that the recommendations were from one particular perspective
on what that thoughtful manner might be. We’re clearly hearing
from the CWC, and I’ve met now with both local town representatives
and community activists and just farmers. It’s what everybody
wants the Catskills to be is what the MOA is about, and that’s
what the partnership is. But there is no ¯ in any way, shape,
or form ¯ no notion that some sort of supra planning organization
might define what the Catskills should be in the future.
So how do you see, sort of, the broader significance of the
The beauty of the FAD and the MOA should in no way to be understood
that we’re done. And that what the vision for the Catskills
for the next 5 years, ten years, and finally 50 years is somehow
found in what we’ve done to date.
The problem is that the EPA gives us a 5-year
FAD and we just got a 5-year extension with an open ended extension.
But as I’ve talked with the Watershed Agricultural Council
and talked with the CWC, for the Filtration Avoidance west of
Hudson, the number roughly put to filter the Catskill-Delaware
watershed would be $5 to $6 billion. Over time it grows to $7
billion. The cost-benefit ratio of spending the $1.2 billion if
we were to lose the filtration avoidance is really money poorly
spent if we can’t keep this thing going for another 20,
30, 50 years and hopefully forever. So that I think the social
experiment that makes the FAD and what makes the MOA, is still
in its infancy. And there are going to be more ideas and more
projects and in the future more funding to make this all viable.
So I think that people tend to think once this part of it is done
we’re all done. That is not the case.
Your agency is taking a significant role in the Belleayre
Resort review. Perhaps you could give us an idea of how you see
that review unfolding.
Well let’s start with that the Belleayre Resort project,
by any calculation, the largest project proposed in the watershed.
Big is not necessarily bad, but it is big. And because it’s
big, and because of its location and the type of project that
it is, there are obviously water quality concerns. And I’ll
start and I’ll probably end with water quality concerns.
By law under State Environmental Quality Review
requirements (SEQRA), DEP needs to find the adequacy of the DEIS,
the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that the Crossroads project
has proposed. That is our legal responsibility. In addition we
have a permitting requirement in terms of stormwater and wastewater
treatment, which are very technical subsets of the larger SEIS.
So we are an involved party. We are here looking at what is a
very large, to some people’s mind visionary project for
the rejuvenation of the Catskills.
I have said and will continue to say that it
is in the best interests of the people who are building the project,
the people who live in the towns around the project, and the water
quality environmentalists who are concerned about its impact,
for the department to undertake thoughtful, scientific analysis
of what is this potentially doing to the long-term sustainability
of the water supply. If we don’t do that, we’ve abdicated
a legal responsibility and a responsibility to the towns that
are around the project, and also then to the people of New York
who have allowed us to invest a billion dollars of their money
to protect that watershed. And if you weren’t prudent and
thoughtful in analyzing that, what are you saying to the people
who’ve allowed you to spend a billion dollars of their money?
Or even then what are you saying then to the towns in and around
this area that we have created a partnership with?
So we think that it is entirely appropriate,
it’s a legal requirement, that DEP look at the long-term
water quality impacts of this project. We recognize as well that
there are the economic challenges facing the Catskills are very
large if not enormous. Per-capita income in Delaware County is
as low as just about anywhere in the United States. And that what
will bring economic vitality and growth is something of real local
concern. So our focus is water quality. Our focus is what does
this do to this investment, what does it do to our reservoirs.
And we think that that is appropriate, and the
towns and the other communities can deal with the issues for those
who think it creates great opportunities, and for those who are
concerned about its impact on the quality and character of the
So do you feel that local planning issues like the project’s
impact on town taxes, services, housing, community character and
so on should be reviewed as part of the SEQRA process, by the
Well I’m not a lawyer but traditionally if not legally,
that type of funding through the SEQRA process allows the local
community which typically would not have the resources or the
expertise to evaluate such a project, that in the kind of public
compact of good faith, that funding is made available so the local
community can evaluate it. I think, like DEP’s position,
the more people know, the more people have a chance to evaluate,
the more people can understand what is being proposed and what
it will bring or what it won’t bring, and the solutions
it will provide or the problems it will create. The more information,
my feeling always is, the better off everybody is. I’ve
done economic development projects in the city, and successful
projects always benefit by information. So if some arrangement
through SEQRA as I believe is traditional can provide funding
to the local towns, I think that can be of real value.
It appears that’s not going to happen
though, since lacking lead agency status, no funding under SEQRA
will be available for any local municipal review.
As I understand that issue, there’s a legal dispute as to
whether or not it’s required under SEQRA.
Yes. Crossroads’ lead counsel Dan Ruzow takes the position
that the level of participation from any involved agency is not
proscribed, but is very flexible and left to its own determination;
basically voluntary. Whether he’d take the same position
regarding your agency’s involvement I don ‘t know,
since DEP and Shandaken are both involved agencies. So’s
Middletown with about 15 percent of the project’s acreage
and maybe 10 percent of its impact. There, the idea of reviewing
the developer’s EIS seems to be viewed with the importance
of maybe reviewing the New York City phone book. Whereas Shandaken’s
town government was elected specifically because it favors comprehensive
local review of the project’s impact on the town. Now
of course we have an unprecedented situation where the established
manner in which that review is financed ¯ voluntarily from
the developer - has been, well, breached is a nice way to put
it, certainly contractually and probably ethically. The thinking
seems to be if the developer can keep the town penniless and in
court, there won’t be any local review, and DEC can make
its determination without any study by the host community at all.
That’s pretty much where things stand now. So do have any
thoughts on the propriety of this?
Well, it’s always difficult for the Commissioner of New
York City DEP to talk about the propriety of what’s occurring
in any town in the watershed. I just return to the idea that if
you are the developer or the attorney or the town, information
is what allows you to solve problems and answer questions. Without
information, speculation, misinformation, and doubts grow, and
create more problems than are necessary. Particularly for a project
of this size.
And I can understand well why Shandaken in particular
being the real host town would want to understand what does this
mean for us going forward? It could be a real seed change for
what that town’s character would be. Or maybe it won’t.
The Draft EIS put forward by the developer has looked at what
they consider the lack of what’s called secondary impacts.
So with analysis that conclusion may well be validated. But if
you are a local planning board or you are a local town supervisor
or mayor or any concerned citizen, knowing is that conclusion’s
reasonable or valid is something you’d think might benefit
from airing it out and looking at it.
Well it’ll certainly take some money for a municipality
to do that. And to protect its taxpayers from those costs, the
town’s proposed a local law to fund the review, which Crossroads
will be challenging in court.
Speaking from my SEQRA experience, traditionally this type of
review is funded by large-scale project developers. Has there
been any discussion of sort of good-faith putting up money?
Yes, both between the attorneys and publicly. The two lead
counsels used to be partners when they represented the watershed
towns during the drafting of the original MOA. So I don’t
think communication is the problem. In fact the Town’s Counsel
Jeff Baker recently suggested publicly that if the developer would
be willing to pay its site plan review fees of about $73,000 in
advance so they could be used for SEQRA, the whole issue of the
local law might go away. The developer’s never responded
to that. So the town has effectively asked for as little as $73,000
to conduct its review, and it’s been completely rebuffed.
Those would be fees that would be paid to the town, following
Right, normally following green-lighting of the project under
Wow. That seems like a fairly viable suggestion, I must say.
Yeah, but in any case, the answer from the developer is no,
Okay. But coming back to our role, the Department’s evaluation
of the Crossroads project, whether you’re for or against
it, is the most valuable way for everybody to understand the water
quality implications. We can’t be pro-development. We can’t
be pro-environment. Our balance needs to be right down the middle,
letting science, letting water quality, letting all of those analysis
benefit everybody when they look at this project. Otherwise it
is a lose-lose for everybody.
That’s why information, like from the Town
of Shandaken can be so helpful. I’ve spoken to the developer
and I’ve spoken to elected officials. And over and over
again I say that the Memorandum of Agreement between the City
and the upstate communities is not about projects, it’s
about process. It’s about making sure that everybody has
the right information, the same information at the same time to
make good decisions. And if we don’t provide that type of
analysis, and do the kind of work that we think will demonstrate
one way or the other, then we won’t make a good decision,
whether you’re in favor of the project or you’re against
the project. And the consultant money ($600,000) that people have
been so troubled by.. .We’re looking to do this review in
an expedited fashion. It’s a large project with a lot of
very complex ecological, water quality questions. This is just
making sure that everybody gets to see the same information and
have the benefit of the same kind of scientific analysis. It’s
a lose-lose from Commissioner Ward’s perspective if there’s
any thought that we’ve been on one side or the other. We
need to be right down the scientific middle of the road on this
Any final thoughts on how the City’s holding up its
end of the bargain so far?
I have said this is a partnership. Tell me what we said we’d
do that we didn’t do . Tell us a contract we didn’t
sign. Tell us a problem that we didn’t solve. And if there
is something out there that we haven’t gotten done, I don’t
know what it is. So when people talk about “the city’s
not committed to making this all work”, I;’ve been
here a year and a half and I can’t come up with anything
where we disagreed, besides for some people’s perspective
on whether or not we should do the consulting analysis of Crossroads.
Other than that, we’ve done everything we said we’d