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Forests Are New York City's Best Hope for Long Term Supply of Clean Water

Study by WWF and World Bank compares costs of new treatment plant with protection of forests in watersheds

Washington, D.C. - A new study launched today by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and The World Bank shows that protecting forest areas in New York City's watersheds provides the most cost-effective means of supplying the city with high quality drinking water and results in significant health and economic benefits. The new report - Running Pure - demonstrates that more than a third of the world's 105 biggest cities - including New York - rely on fully or partly protected forests for much of their drinking water. Well-managed natural forests in New York City's watersheds can minimize the risk of landslides, erosion, and sedimentation. Forests in New York's Catskill, Delaware, and Croton watersheds substantially improve water purity by filtering pollutants, such as pesticides, and in some cases capture and store water.

"Cities need cleaner, cheaper, and more secure water supplies now and in the future," said Bob Irvin, director of ecoregional conservation at WWF. "But as urbanization increases, so too will pressure on the forests that protect watersheds and water quality. Protecting forests in New York City's watersheds provides a low-tech, highly effective solution that New Yorkers should support."

According to the report, adopting a forest protection strategy can result in massive savings because it is cheaper to protect and manage forests than to build water treatment plants. The cost of building a new water treatment plant for New York was estimated at $6-8 billion in startup costs and $300-500 million in annual operating costs, while the costs of protecting land and forest resources were estimated at $1-1.5 billion over ten years.

The nine million residents of New York and surrounding areas receive their drinking water supply mostly from the Catskill, Delaware, and Croton watersheds. These watersheds together deliver 1.3 billion gallons of water daily to the New York City metropolitan area. Forests constitute 75% of the total land area in these watersheds. The Catskill Forest Preserve, for example, protects approximately 25% of the watershed from further development.

"For many cities, time is running out," said David Cassells, a senior environmental specialist at The World Bank. "Protecting forests around water catchment areas is no longer a luxury but a necessity. When the forests are gone, the costs of providing clean and safe drinking water to urban areas will increase dramatically."

Over a billion mainly poor city dwellers around the world are deprived of drinking water or adequate sanitation. In urban areas with inadequate freshwater supply, poor sanitation, and bad hygiene practices, the infant mortality rate is 10-20 times the norm.