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A Model Water Plan

New York City’s massive water-supply system serves an estimated 9 million people and produces 1.3 billion gallons of high-quality drinking water a day. Water is supplied from two upstate watershed regions — the Croton region north of the city and the Catskill/Delaware, which covers an area in the Catskill Mountains and the headwaters of the Delaware River that is larger than the state of Rhode Island. More than 75 percent of the land in the Catskill/Delaware watershed is privately owned.

Croton Reservoir, Westchester, N.Y.;
© Jon Riley/Folio Inc.

The city has committed to filtering the Croton system, which accounts for 10 percent of its water supply and is located in a more densely populated area. However, it has devised an ambitious watershed management strategy to protect high water quality in the much larger Catskill/Delaware system in the absence of filtration. The city’s plan is unprecedented because of its overall size and cost, and the implications for public and environmental policy.

The New York City Watershed Memorandum of Agreement was signed in 1997 after years of negotiations between city officials and representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, New York state government, environmental groups, and municipalities around the watershed regions that supply the city with water. At present, the main target of the city’s watershed management strategy is phosphorus, which can play a large role in degrading water quality but by itself is not toxic. But a new report from the National Research Council says the plan instead should place the greatest importance on preventing and controlling microbial pathogens like Cryptosporidium and Giardia. These microorganisms pose a significant and direct threat to public health because they are very resistant to the chlorination process used to disinfect the city’s unfiltered water supply. The report urges city officials to step up efforts to monitor, model, and control such organisms.

The massive, multijurisdictional agreement calls for a complex amalgam of programs and policies for land acquisition and management, new health and environmental regulations, and financial assistance to communities to help promote environment-friendly development. It also will allow the city to avoid the need for filtering the Catskill/Delaware system until at least 2002, and should help maintain existing high-quality drinking water over the next several years, the report says.

Overall, the committee that prepared the report hailed the city’s watershed management plan as a prototype for water suppliers nationwide. However, evolving scientific understanding of the impacts of pollutants on human health, changing environmental regulations, and the uncertainties about the origin of specific pollutants, demand that the city continually re-evaluate the need to use filtration or other technologies beyond chlorination to control dangerous protozoa, bacteria, and viruses.

The city’s movement toward a comprehensive watershed plan can be traced to more stringent environmental regulations dating from 1989, which require suppliers to filter surface water in addition to disinfecting it, unless a watershed management plan is implemented. — Bob Ludwig

Watershed Management for Potable Water Supply: Assessing New York City’s Approach. Committee to Review the New York City Watershed Management Strategy, Water Science and Technology Board, Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources (1999, 442 pp.; ISBN 0-309-06777-4; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $52.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Charles O’Melia, professor of geography and environmental engineering, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. The study was funded by the New York City Comptroller’s Office.

© David Frazier/Folio Inc.
Hardrock Mining

The mining of gold, silver, uranium, copper, lead, and other hardrock minerals has been a vital part of the economies of many western states for decades. A federal mining law, little changed since its enactment in 1872, permits corporations to extract minerals from public lands without paying royalties to the government or acquiring title to the land itself. As a result, mining operations have been established on federal lands in 12 western states, including Alaska.

But although mining benefits the economies of these states, environmental groups and residents in surrounding areas have long been concerned about the damage caused to neighboring ecosystems. The legacy of past mining practices includes scarred landscapes, polluted streams, abandoned mine shafts, and crumbling structures. Moreover, taxpayers often carry the burden of cleanup for mining companies that fail to restore land and resources after operations cease. A variety of federal and state environmental regulations are in place to guard against potential abuses, but these programs have been criticized for not going far enough to protect the environment.

Regulations that govern mining are generally effective, says a new report by a committee of the Research Council. But they are applied unevenly, and in some cases inexpertly. Action should be taken to ensure that current regulations work as they are supposed to and that existing regulatory gaps are filled, the committee said.

The complicated mix of federal and state environmental laws reflects the way mineral distribution and mining operations vary across the states. For example, copper mining in one area may pose a different set of environmental concerns from those presented by gold mining in another. Thus, a one-size-fits-all solution would be impractical, the committee said. Environmental impact reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act provide the kind of site-specific approach that should be taken.

New Mexico copper mine;
© Mark E. Gibson/Folio Inc.

To improve implementation of existing laws, federal land managers will need a better system to track compliance. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service — the two agencies of the government that manage federal lands — should maintain an information management system that tracks mining companies’ compliance with operating plans and environmental permits, the report says. This information should be communicated to agency managers, the public, and other stakeholders.

The committee also pointed out several gaps in existing regulations. For example, federal law requires hardrock mining operations to provide bonding or financial assurance that mining companies would pay for any needed environmental cleanup. But BLM does not require such financial backing for mining activities that disturb fewer than five acres. All but “casual use” mining operations — those that do not involve using mechanical equipment to move earth — should provide financial assurance for eventual cleanup needs.

To identify possible environmental impacts before mining permits are granted, the government needs to do a better job of bringing all relevant agencies and interest groups together to discuss concerns, the committee said. Permit-review processes should be expedited, and all federal and state agencies with jurisdiction over mining operations or natural resources should be required to cooperate from the earliest stages. In addition, Congress should fund an aggressive and coordinated research program to create methods for predicting, measuring, and mitigating environmental impacts. — Molly Galvin

Hardrock Mining on Federal Lands. Committee on Hardrock Mining on Federal Lands, Board on Earth Sciences and Resources, Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources (1999, 260 pp.; ISBN 0-309-06596-8; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $33.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Perry Hagenstein, independent consultant on resource economics and policy, Wayland, Mass. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Biotech Plants

Supermarket shelves are becoming more crowded with foods made from genetically altered plants. Farmers and manufacturers increasingly rely on biotechnology to tailor plants to consumer and production needs, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has given approval to several dozen varieties.

© Everett C. Johnson/Folio Inc.

As the agricultural biotechnology industry has grown, it has created new challenges for regulators, as well as controversy. Reaction in Europe has been intense, where many consumers have rejected genetically altered foods. In the United States, public debate over their environmental safety increased last summer after a researcher reported that pollen from genetically altered corn killed the larvae of the Monarch butterfly in a laboratory experiment. But other researchers have since challenged those findings.

Because the technology is advancing so rapidly, the USDA has asked the Research Council to provide ongoing, expert scientific advice in this field. In response, the Research Council will establish a standing committee of experts to help identify emerging issues in agricultural biotechnology, conduct studies, and hold workshops.

In its first year, the committee will review the scientific evidence that regulators will need to assess the environmental effects of genetically altered plants. — N.T. (See listing under New Projects.)

Joining Forces on Water

By virtue of geography, the social, economic, and political history of Mexico and the United States is richly interwoven. But just as important is the geography itself — the two countries share adjacent coastal and oceanic areas in the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean. These marine areas are linked seamlessly by natural forces such as ocean currents and animal migrations. Both countries must manage fisheries, protect endangered marine life, and clean up oil spills in the region. But unfortunately, national political boundaries, cultural differences, and inadequate funding all have prevented cooperation among scientists conducting marine research.

U.S. and Mexican coastal and ocean areas, showing approximate
boundaries of the exclusive economic zones of both nations

A new report by a committee of the Research Council and the Academia Mexicana de Ciencias urges the U.S. and Mexican governments to increase cooperation in ocean science activities. And while the committee noted that support for ocean research in Mexico is insufficient to sustain scientists already working in the field, it identified several joint research activities that could be undertaken if more support becomes available.

For example, because of the semi-enclosed nature of the Gulf of Mexico, activities such as oil and gas exploration can have significant and long-lasting effects on the marine environment — both within the gulf and in outlying ocean regions. Research is needed to determine the impacts of oil and other pollutants on marine organisms and humans. In addition, a better understanding of ocean currents and tides could identify their potential effects on gulf fisheries, continental weather, and natural hazards.

To help strengthen its focus on ocean sciences, the Mexican government should study the merits of creating an agency responsible for marine affairs and ocean information, either as a new entity or placed within an existing agency, the committee said. And the United States and Mexico should develop collaborative activities related to the ocean sciences that could be funded through the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Forming a U.S.-Mexico research organization would foster more cooperative studies, the committee added. The joint effort could be modeled after the European Science Foundation, which allocates several hundred million dollars each year to fund research in areas of multinational European interest such as marine science. Establishing cooperative oceanic and atmospheric observing systems also could enhance regional ocean monitoring efforts. Such systems could collect long-term information and distribute data for weather and climate prediction, fisheries management, and protection of marine ecosystems and biodiversity.

To further encourage collaboration, government agencies and private scientific organizations in the United States and Mexico should promote programs through which students, faculty, technicians, and government officials could conduct joint research and share information. Both countries also should hold scientific symposia and provide other pertinent training and laboratory experiences for students and staff in the neighboring country. And links such as Web sites, teleconference facilities, and computer databases should be established to improve the flow of information between U.S. and Mexican scientists. — M.G.

Building Ocean Science Partnerships: The United States and Mexico Working Together. AMC-NRC Joint Working Group on Ocean Sciences, Ocean Studies Board, Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources (1999, 298 pp.; ISBN 0-309-05881-3; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $45.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The study was co-chaired by Agustín Ayala-Castañares, professor, Instituto de Ciencias del Mar y Limnologia, Universidad Nacional Autonóma de México; and Robert Knox, research oceanographer and associate director, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. The study was funded by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation, and National Research Council, and by the Academia Mexicana de Ciencias.

Copyright National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.