The New York City Watershed Whole Farm Program

Catskill Region, New York, USA

Responsible Partner Organizations

The New York City Watershed Agricultural Council

New York City Department of Environmental Protection


The New York City (NYC) water supply system is the largest surface storage and supply complex in the world, yielding 1.2 billion gallons of water daily. Within this watershed is the Catskill Mountain region of New York, an area primarily agricultural and forested but facing development pressure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (USEPA) 1986 Safe Drinking Water Act required filtration for all U.S water systems, including NYC's. The potential cost for the implementation of a filtration system for NYC's water supply was enormous, approximately $6 billion for the construction and an annual operation and maintenance cost of $300 million. Fortunately, the USEPA granted NYC the opportunity to seek alternatives to the filtration system through watershed protection.

NYC's Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) proposed a series of watershed regulations in 1990. In an effort to limit pathogens and nutrients entering the watershed, severe restrictions were placed on agricultural runoff. These restrictions would have devastated livestock agriculture in the watershed and probably resulted in the closure of several farms. The watershed, already confronted with increased urbanization, would then have development pressure exasperated. Increased urban development would inevitably necessitate the construction of a filtration system.

The Catskill farmers saw their way of life threatened by New York City's overbearing regulations. NYCDEP saw no alternative but to regulate farm activity in the watershed. The political stalemate resulted in confrontation, but both parties eventually realized that open dialogue offered the only possibility of resolution . From these dialogues, some key principles for an agreement were affirmed. The parties acknowledged that agriculture is a preferable land use in the Catskills watershed, and maintaining well-managed agriculture is the best method of watershed protection. Second, the farmers recognized that agricultural pollution was a problem that needed to be addressed. Finally, NYC offered to welcome and address any constructive responses from the farming community.

From these guiding principles emerged the New York City Watershed Whole Farm Program. All aspects of the program were to be implemented by the farmer-led Watershed Agricultural Council. The first phase of the program included developing, testing, and demonstrating the whole farm plan approach on at least ten farms. A whole farm plan can be viewed as an extended farm business plan that includes management and structural steps to reduce pathogen, nutrient, sediment, and pesticide runoff. The second phase involved recruiting volunteer farmer participants into the program. NYC agreed to provide cost-share assistance for the implementation of agricultural best management practices in the watershed. Each farmer chose for him or herself whether to participate. The Watershed Agricultural Council was responsible for delivering an overall rate of 85% participation within five years of implementation.

Voluntary participation in the program appears to be one of the key elements to the program's success. The Catskill farmers have had a distrust of NYC that dates back several generations. NYCDEP-imposed watershed regulations would have been denounced and resisted by the farmers. With the Whole Farm Program, farmers were an integral part of the decision-making process, and decided themselves upon participation.

Results Achieved

The Whole Farm Program was initiated in 1992. The Watershed Agricultural Council recently announced that it has achieved its 85% participation goal ahead of schedule. The implementation of best management practices on the farms is also ahead of schedule. The program is expected to continue until at least 1999, with an extension likely. The program has resulted in a strengthened agricultural presence in the Catskills, improved management practices by the farmers, and improved water quality. The program will likely remove the necessity of installing a costly filtration system for NYC's water supply. Most importantly, the program addresses the source of pollution rather than treating the resulting impacts, and results in environmentally and economically sustainable communities in the Catskills.

At the same time, the Catskills have been an invaluable laboratory for testing new approaches and applications. For example, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is working with farmers in the Catskills to refine on-farm pollution prevention tools. The novel agreement and tools that have evolved from the program have fostered innovations in watershed protection throughout the United States.

Lessons learned

The Catskill farmers and NYCDEP, two groups with historically opposing interests, found that their goals were mutually compatible. Cost-sharing incentives, instead of regulation, resulted in farmer participating under their own leadership. These voluntarily involved farmers, aided technically and financially to match their business activities to NYC's water quality needs, formed the basis of a successful watershed protection program. The program also demonstrates the economic advantages of innovative partnerships. Literally billions of dollars will be saved through watershed protection.

Finally, a clear vision of goals is crucial to a program's success. Watershed protection should not focus on the control of specific pollutants, but on the promotion of environmentally healthy landscapes. Healthy landscapes that include agriculture not only result in cleaner water, but provide food and promote economically sound rural communities.

For More Information…

For more information about the New York City watershed agreement and other watershed partnerships, contact

Mark Muller

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

2105 First Avenue South

Minneapolis, Minnesota 55404

phone: (612) 870-3420

fax: (612) 870-4846