One of the first actions of Mayor Bloomberg’s third term was to appoint Caswell F. Holloway as the new DEP Commissioner. Commissioner Holloway has his hands full. The Water Board is blaming conservation for projected double-digit increases in water/sewer rates. Environmental groups and the New York Times are focusing in on raw sewage in the Hudson River. Gas drilling is about to begin in the watershed and the Delaware Aqueduct may spring a leak at any time! Yet no one is proposing affordable solutions. And so, in the coming weeks, WaterWatchNYC will be rolling out a list of “Ten Ways to Save the DEP,” ten steps that we think the DEP, the Water Board and the Mayor should take in order to save money and the environment.
This is not the first time that a Mayor or the Water Board faced daunting challenges. Back when Mayor Dinkins appointed Albert Appleton as the DEP Commissioner in 1990, the agency was beset with problems. NYC was coming out of a Stage III Emergency drought (little did we know that another drought was only a year and a half away), spending was out of control and water and sewer rates were rising at unprecedented levels (from Fiscal Year 1989 to the second half of Fiscal Year 1990, the combined water/sewer rate went up over 40%!). New Yorkers were clamoring for additional sources of water. The federal government was pressuring NYC to begin filtering its drinking water and the environmental lobby was suing the city to build huge sewer treatment plants.
Commissioner Appleton approached each problem in a novel manner without significantly increasing the financial burden on New Yorkers by thinking outside the box. He did not take existing policy as a given. At every turn he challenged the status quo. In his own words: “Essentially what we did was change the department’s policy from one of building new facilities as needed and managing the existing system within the resources the budget bureau gave us, to a much more proactive, integrated financial-environmental infrastructure strategy.”
He questioned every solution proposed by the DEP’s engineering department and the federal government. When the federal government mandated that NYC start filtering our drinking water, Commissioner Appleton’s priority wasn’t the cheapest and most effective way of building and operating filtration plants. His priority was the cheapest and most effective way of improving the quality of our drinking water.
There is a subtle difference here, but that subtle difference is magnified when you examine the actual outcome. Appleton didn’t build a single water treatment facility. He purchased the land around our reservoirs and ensured that from the very first stages of our water delivery system, the water is clean. At a minimal cost, Commissioner Appleton eliminated the need for billions of dollars of spending.
Appleton’s solution to the drought was no less courageous. Rather than spend tens of billions of dollars to build new reservoirs, the city spent only $250 million to replace over one million toilets. Now we have more water than we know what to do with. (As of this writing our reservoirs are at 93.6%, over 20% greater than normal.) NYC was told to spend billions and the commissioner said I’ll just prevent this from even becoming an issue and save money in the process.
I bring this up in my introduction because Commissioner Appleton and his approach to creative financial and environmental problem solving is a perfect example of what we need to see from the DEP. All the existing problems can be solved on the cheap by daring to think outside the box. We are currently facing many of the same problems that Appleton faced when he took office (out of control spending and consistent double digit rate increases just to name a few). If there’s one thing Commissioner Appleton has taught us it’s that whether the problem is financial or environmental, all it takes to be one step ahead is thinking outside the box and a little creative problem solving.
And by the way, when Appleton left office, the DEP was in the middle of a three-year freeze on water/sewer rate hikes. All is not lost.