DEP Adopts Final Updates to Watershed Regulations

Real Estate In-Depth | December 2019

NEW YORK—The New York City Department of Environmental Protection recently announced the adoption of updates to its watershed regulations. The updates, which seek to protect water quality while easing the path to compliance for local homeowners and business owners, were finalized after several years of consultation with leaders from watershed towns and environmental advocates.

“Many thanks go to the watershed community representatives, state and federal regulators, and environmental advocates who collaborated with us to identify and craft these common-sense regulatory updates,” DEP Commissioner Vincent Sapienza said. “Our work to protect water quality while promoting community vitality in the watershed is an ongoing process. That process is made better because of open, honest and productive discussions with our partners, which led to these updated regulations.”

“Having lived for over 20 years with the new watershed regulations that allowed New York City to avoid filtration, the watershed communities were able to identify revisions to the regulations that would alleviate the burden on watershed residents while maintaining a very high level of water quality protection,” Coalition of Watershed Towns Chairman Mark Tuthill said.

The updated watershed regulations became effective on Nov. 29. DEP’s watershed regulations largely focus on wastewater treatment, stormwater runoff, and the protection of watershed streams that feed the city’s reservoirs. The city first established watershed regulations in 1917 to protect its water supply and provide oversight of activities that might cause contamination. Those regulations were modified significantly in the 1990s, and last updated in 2010.

Most of the latest updates simply reflect changes in state and federal law, or improve the clarity of language in the existing rules. However, several substantive changes were made to remove or reduce burdens to watershed economic development without affecting water quality. Those changes include:

• The amended regulations establish a category of small, limited-impact projects for which stormwater pollution prevention plans can be simpler, similar to the existing framework for individual residential stormwater permits. This will make the stormwater approval process more efficient for many small business owners.

• The regulations replace the prior approach for evaluating alterations and modifications of septic systems, and for determining whether systems that have not been used in some time can be brought back into service. The new, more streamlined process will focus primarily on how well the septic system will serve the proposed use, consistent with public health and water quality concerns.

• The amendments eliminate the “hardship” criterion necessary for obtaining a variance from the regulations. Each variance application will now be reviewed on its merits without the requirement to prove a specific hardship.

• The amendments eliminate the description of an East-of-Hudson phosphorus offset program for wastewater plants. That program had a limited term and has already ended.

• In addition, the amendments incorporate the most recent versions of various New York State publications cited in the watershed regulations, including those related to stormwater discharges, design standards for intermediate-sized wastewater treatment systems, and the latest standards of wastewater treatment for residential onsite systems.

The changes were vetted at four public hearings in the watershed and in New York City in 2018.