Leading Adaptively: New York City Watershed Management

The New York City Water system serves nine million people with 1.5 billion gallons of water a day. The system gathers 90% of its water from the rural Catskills watershed. By the end of the 1980s, an environmentally destructive pattern of land use was replacing the traditional agricultural and land use of the Catskills, causing pollution and reductions in water quality. While filtration of the City’s water seemed inevitable, the estimated cost of a filtration facility was $5 billion dollars.

Kinship Faculty member Al Appleton was at that time Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and Director of the New York City Water and Sewer system.  Al’s background was in management reform, public finance, and environmental policy. Although a new filtration plant was the obvious solution to the water industry and its regulators, Al did not see that the City’s water system had a technical problem; Al observed that a good environment will produce good water and that pollution prevention was better than pollution clean-up – and New York City thus made a revolutionary decision. Instead of simply charging downstream users to pay to clean their water, the City would regulate non-point source pollution in the Catskills. But once enforcement began, rural landowners reacted angrily, denounced the City and vowed all out resistance to the urban invaders. 

Whole farm planning helped Catskills landowners reduce point source pollution. From: Cornell Cooperative Extension and The Cornell Chronicle, 2018.

With Al’s leadership, Catskill farmers and City water users co-developed an ecosystem services program that provided economic opportunities to residents that were compatible with the preservation and enhancement of the ecosystem integrity of the Catskill landscape. Two fundamental preconditions were required for Cat-Del watershed conservation to work. First was the recognition of Catskill residents that New York City had a legitimate interest in seeking to protect the purity of its water. Secondly the technocrat regulators of the federal and city governments had to accept that farmers in the Catskills might well be the best people to design an environmental protection program compatible with their needs. The Catskill farmers created a customizable program called “Whole Farm Planning,” and while the program was voluntary, a goal was set to obtain the participation of 85% of Catskill farmers within five years, which was what was needed to ensure the City met its pollution reduction objectives. After five years, 93% of all Catskill farmers were full program participants. The results were clear: there was a 75-80% reduction in farm pollution loading, the pristine quality of the city’s drinking water was restored, and the program also became popular with the public.  

Rondout Reservoir is part of New York City’s water supply network.  It is located 75 miles northwest of the city in the Catskill Mountains. From: fastestknowntime.com

The New York City watershed case offers ongoing lessons for both climate change adaptation and mitigation. On a broader scale, the Catskill program spurred watershed protection and environmentally-friendly farm programs throughout the United States and catalyzed interest in non-traditional facility construction approaches of the U.S. water industry.

Al Appleton’s insight was that the cleaning of New York City’s water was not a technical problem. Rather, the City’s challenges were psychological, behavioral, and political, and could only be resolved with adaptive leadership and collaborative, flexible negotiations.

Kinship Faculty member Beatrice Ungard has taught this case study for the past seven years during the summer sessions of the Kinship Conservation Fellowship. She notes: “The NYC watershed example is one of the best cases of adaptive leadership in the conservation field.  Al Appleton’s adaptive leadership style enabled all of the stakeholders involved to engage in a process of redefining their understanding of the challenge they faced and co-creating a new approach that delivered value to all.”

Featured: Kinship Faculty Al Appleton and Beatrice Ungard

Al Appleton is an international environmental consultant with expertise in water resource and water utility management, infrastructure economics, public finance, land use and landscape preservation. He is recognized worldwide as one of the leading experts in the economics of sustainable development and the use of new green financial strategies such as Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) to achieve mutually supporting economic development and environmental protection goals. Al is Senior Fellow and Adjunct Associate Professor at The Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design.  Al has served on the Kinship Conservation Fellows faculty in Bellingham, Washington. He is a graduate of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington and of Yale Law School.

Beatrice Ungard founded Soma Integral Consulting with a mission to facilitate the resolution of adaptive challenges while focusing on the well-being of social and environmental ecosystems. In partnership with practitioners in the Design Built Environment, she delivers regenerative design and development services to communities, cities, and local governments that seek to become more sustainable. She has taught strategic management and systems thinking courses for diverse MBA programs and is currently an instructor for The Regenesis Institute. Beatrice has served on the Kinship Conservation Fellows faculty in Bellingham, Washington.  She holds a master of science and a doctorate from the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and a diploma of architecture from the University of Geneva, Switzerland. 

Download the full case study: Leading Adaptively, New York City Watershed Management