New York City’s Water Supply Issues


Daily life is full of important choices and careful decisions that are not always right or wrong. However, when the decisions of small groups of representatives shape the future of millions of people, ethical dilemmas that arise must have a practical solution that would satisfy all the parties involved. “Thirsty Metropolis: A Case Study of New York City’s Drinking Water” introduces an ongoing problem for New York residents: not enough drinking water that would meet the safety and quality standards of Surface Water Treatment Rule (SWTR). This required NYC to either filter the water it got from upstate watersheds or “satisfy the provisions of the SWTR for unfiltered water” (Vintinner 115). As a result, the interests of four different parties were involved: upstate stakeholders, government agencies, downstate stakeholders, and environmental groups.

Parties Involved, Their Rights and Responsibilities

Upstate stakeholders were concerned with the well-being of upstate residents and possible economic outcomes of land acquisition, so they filed a number of lawsuits against the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Downstate New Yorkers had a right to safe and high-quality drinking water, which meant that the NYC authorities were responsible for representing their interests against upstate communities and environmental groups that argued for wildlife protection. In this case, environmentalists wanted to ensure that the water was safe, but they advocated for the quality regulations not to endanger wildlife and endangered species in watershed areas.

Every side would get affected by the final decision, but the federal and state powers ultimately had the most authority. Ethical issues complicated the matter as the lives of both upstate residents and downstate New Yorkers would get affected. Based on the benefit/burden assessment as well as all the facts presented in the case, the most rational option from the perspective of state and federal powers would be land acquisition with the goal of regulating activities on water-sensitive lands.

Factual Issues

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the NYC Board of Water Supply decided to shift the city’s source of water from local reservoirs to a system of aqueducts and reservoirs in upstate New York (Vintinner 112). It derives mainly from surface water in three drainage areas: the Catskill, Delaware, and Croton watersheds stretching downstate to NYC through a series of tunnels. After the outbreaks of several waterborne illnesses and rising health concerns regarding the safety of tap water, the EPA issued the SWTR in 1989 and a conditional Filtration Avoidance Determination (FAD) in 1993 (Vintinner 113). FAD focused on watershed protection through land acquisition, which caused immediate opposition from upstate communities. They regarded the possible eminent domain as a threat to their economy as it might have devalued private property (land could become unavailable for development). It led to the Coalition of Watershed Towns (CWT) filing multiple lawsuits against NYC authorities.

Environmental groups such as Hudson Riverkeeper, Trust for Public Land, and New York Public Interest Group advocated primarily for water safety for all parties involved. However, they were also concerned with the preservation of biodiversity. Land acquisition would result in the destruction of watershed ecosystems that “supported numerous endangered and threatened species” (Vintinner 118). Officials tasked with the protection of the NYC water supply had to consider the environmental implications of land acquisition.

The option of building a filtration system was controversial because it required billions of dollars to finance such a massive project. In 2015, the city opened a $3.2 billion filtration plant at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx (Hu). The cost of a larger water purification system that could produce high-quality drinking water for millions of New York residents and tourists would be upward $6-8 billion dollars, not including hundreds of millions of annual operating costs (Vintinner 115). It would not only be less cost-effective than land acquisition, but burdensome for New Yorkers as water rates would substantially increase.

Ethical Issues of the Case

An ethical dilemma arises as the well-being of both upstate residents, and downstate New Yorkers are at risk. Thus, government agencies become a facilitator in a necessary discussion between the parties. The federal and state powers are concerned about the safety of drinking water, while being aware of the economic implications land acquisition may lead to in upstate watershed regions. From an ethical perspective, the problem that concerns millions of people requires a thorough assessment of possible benefits and impediments of alternative options. While individual cases can be solved with the help of virtue ethics or deontological principles, consequentialism might be considered the best ethical theory when it comes to practical solutions for large groups of people.

Consequentialism determines if the action is ethically right, depending on the immediate and long-term consequences of that action. It is rooted in a thorough analysis of all the possible benefits and burdens in order to identify a favorable course of action with the most desirable ends for all mankind (Liu et al. 351). Thus, it is clear that in the case of NYC water supply, government officials needed to look further than separate individual struggles of upstate communities or low-income New Yorkers. It was crucial to create a clear picture of what each option would mean for society at large.

Possible Courses of Action and Outcomes

Land acquisition would result in stable and safe water supply for downstate New York. It would not have any substantial positive effects except keeping everything normal so that New Yorkers continue in a normal rhythm, and tourists remain a big part of the city’s economy. Upstate communities would face negative consequences in terms of their ability for land development. Environmentalists would probably be concerned about the preservation of wildlife in rural watershed areas that could at risk because of the land acquisition program.

Filtration would mean the end of upstate residents’ concerns and the beginning of financial burdens for NYC and its residents. Low-income communities could not possibly afford higher water rates (Forter et al. 9). Landlords could not pass the additional rates to their tenants, which would lead to “closure of housing units in rent-controlled areas of the City” (Vintinner 118). The construction of an enormous filtration system would take years, and as a result, it could affect tourism, which sustains more than thousands of jobs and generates billions in sales and national taxes (McGeehan). Therefore, filtration would lead to more burdens than benefits on a national level, and it would me more reasonable to choose an option of land acquisition to supply downstate communities with safe drinking water.

Position and Opinions

The role of government officials requires them to make the most practical choice in the case of NYC water supply system, and the ethical dilemma of favoring upstate communities over NYC residents leads to a less-individualistic approach called consequentialism. The role of federal and state representatives includes analyzing all the possible outcomes of either option as well as presenting the public with a preferable solution and effective strategies for its implementation. The analysis demonstrates that the benefits of land acquisition ultimately outweigh the positive effects of a costly purification system. However, public outrage would fill all the local and national media outlets if the officials failed to recognize the negative complications.

The first immediate issue is the economic struggles that residents of watershed areas might face once the land acquisition process starts. The solutions could be preserving parts of land from development and developing a program that would repair septic systems for residential and municipal buildings, businesses, churches, and non-profit organizations. The program could potentially affect the economy in a positive way by creating local jobs in construction and smoothing out land used for agricultural purposes. The government could also provide development loans to restaurants, shops, and hospitals to ensure the growth of the local economy in the areas.

As for environmental concerns, land development could affect the process of climate change regulation through flood mitigation (Huang et al. 542). The state government would acquire flood-prone areas, shore up eroding streams, and analyze the nature of flood hazards. Land acquisition would also lead to reducing pollution from operating farms and mills. Moreover, the officials could focus on increasing the number of wastewater treatment plants, where wastewater is purified and released back into the streams and rivers, as well as decrease the number of leakages in an already-operating water tunnels system.


Upstate communities, downstate New York residents, environmental groups, and government agencies faced an issue regarding the water supplied to NYC from northern New York State. Government officials became facilitators in a series of discussions as they had the most authority and were legally obligated to present a decision that would satisfy each party. They were tasked to resolve a complex ethical dilemma, and based on the assessment of benefits and negatives, the best course of action could be identified. From an ethical point of view, land acquisition would be beneficial to a greater number of individuals. A series of government initiatives for local upstate communities would ensure economic and environmental risks of land development were minimized.

Works Cited

Forter, Donald, et al. “The Effects of Water Utility Prices on Low Income Consumers.” Journal of International Energy Policy, vol. 5, no. 1, 2016, pp. 9-17. Clute Journals. Web.

Hu, Winnie. “A Billion-Dollar Investment in New York’s Water.” New York Times, 2018. Web.

Huang, Chen-Lin, et al. “Optimization of Low Impact Development Layout Designs for Megacity Flood Mitigation.” Journal of Hydrology, vol. 564, 2018, pp. 542-558, ScienceDirect, doi: 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2018.07.044.

Liu, Xiaofei, et al. “Consequentialism and the Boundary of Morality.” Philosophical Psychology, vol. 33, no.3, 2020, pp. 351-368. Taylor & Francis Online, doi: 10.1080/09515089.2020.1729975.

McGeehan, Patrick. “NYC’s Economy Could Be Ravaged by Coronavirus Outbreak.” New York Times, 2020. Web.

Vintinner, Erin C. “Thirsty Metropolis: A Case Study of New York City’s Drinking Water.” Lessons in Conservation, vol. 2, 2008, pp. 110-132.

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