Local Watershed Protection Toolkit (1): Watershed Protection Improvement District

Although many environmental measures take place at the federal and state levels or through federal-state partnerships (think Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Superfund, etc.), certain challenges need to be addressed at the local level.  It is not always obvious, however, what legal and administrative tools are available to municipalities and other local stakeholders to best address problems such as stormwater runoff and excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers and other nonpoint source pollution.  This blog series presents three tools, ranging from the time-honored to the innovative, that are well-matched for residents and localities to tackle environmental issues arising in their area.

The first tool is a Watershed Protection Improvement District. The other two tools that we will discuss in subsequent blog posts are Watershed Community Cooperatives and Voluntary Green Neighbor Agreements.  Each tool can be used separately, but they can also be used together as a suite of efforts to address local environmental issues efficiently and effectively.

Watershed Protection Improvement District

Overview

Many people are familiar with local government special purpose districts such as water and sewage districts, fire districts, harbor districts, etc.  As the name suggests, special purpose districts are local government entities designed to address specific needs (water supply, water treatment, fire protection, etc.) and typically pay for related services and/or preventative or remedial measures by assessing residents and businesses within the district’s geographic boundaries.  In addition to those traditional types of special districts, New York state has authorized localities to create Watershed Protection Improvement Districts (WPIDs) “for the protection and restoration of groundwater, surface waters, and drinking water quality.”1  

Under New York Town Law and other state statutes, a WPID has broad powers to undertake stormwater treatment projects, wetland construction and other green infrastructure projects and to “take such other actions as may be required.”2

Key benefits of WPIDs are that they (1) allow local communities to take initiative locally (rather than waiting for the entire state to act), (2) create a body that is responsible for action, and (3) create a stable stream of funding by assessing impact fees on homeowners, securing grant and loan funding, and contracting to provide ecosystem services in exchange for payments from other jurisdictions that benefit from those services.  

How WPIDs Are Created and (Are Designed To) Work

In the years since New York’s Town Law was amended in 2012 to authorize the creation of WPID’s, apparently no such district has been created.  The legal infrastructure is in place nonetheless.

Town Law Articles 12 and 12-A govern the creation and operation of special districts, including WPIDs.3  Approval by the New York State Comptroller is required for creation or expansion of a WPID (or other special district) if the district is to finance its activities through the issuance of bonds or other Town debt.4

Presumably, a WPID would, like other types of special districts, be led by a locally-elected board.   Once created, a WPID can engage in planning, set standards, enter into contracts, make recommendations to Town councils, and take other actions to protect and improve watersheds.5  They can conduct studies, collect monitoring data, and disseminate information on progress in achieving goals.   

In addition to larger infrastructure projects, WPIDs could take more granular actions such as providing homeowners grants or no-interest loans to implement environmental best practices to help create cleaner water and less floodwater, which helps reduce costs downstream.  Such practices include septic repairs, water retention ponds, rain barrels, permeable pavement replacements, tree planting along creeks, grey water systems, and other smaller-scale green infrastructure. WPIDs can work with Soil and Water Conservation Districts and, in New York, Cornell Cooperative Extension to provide education, data and technical expertise about watershed protection efforts.

A WPID could also use a web interface to help community members monitor progress of watershed goals, mobilize citizens as a volunteer labor source for local conservation projects in the watershed, and hold regular community social events to foster watershed stewardship.

Using WPIDs Across Jurisdictions

New York law allows Towns to use WPIDs creatively in collaboration with other jurisdictions.6  For example, a WPID can generate funds by contracting to provide ecosystem services whose benefits accrue to downstream governments, e.g., upstream stormwater retention ponds, septic system repairs and other services that support cleaner water and flood control downstream.  In exchange, the downstream governments pay for these ecosystem services, which then reduce downstream costs for water purification and flood repair and prevention. This “payment for ecosystem services” model can be particularly effective when watershed boundaries extend beyond a single political boundary.  In those instances, WPIDs can be used to achieve beneficial outcomes for both communities that otherwise could be stymied by a bifurcated or atomized political geography — better environmental outcomes and lower remediation costs downstream, and supplemental payments available to residents upstream. The model has been used on a larger scale by New York City, which famously contracted with upstate counties and partners to protect watersheds that feed the city’s 8.5 million residents, avoiding the need to build and operate a multi-billion dollar water filtration system.7

WPIDs can also enter into contracts with other WPIDs in neighboring towns to protect mutual watersheds, potentially creating de facto WPID networks.  

Conclusion

Although the WPID is a new legal form, its structure and operation can be informed by other types of special districts that have been operational for decades.  Localities looking to address environmental watershed problems within Town boundaries or in collaboration with neighboring jurisdictions would be wise to consider using a WPID for its flexibility and efficiency.

  1. New York Town Law § 198(10-g).
  2. Id.
  3. Article 12 (Sections 190 to 208-B) governs special improvement districts and sets forth a property owner petition process for initiating or expanding a district. Article 12-A (Sections 209 to 209-I) provides an alternative method for creating or expanding districts by vote of the Town Board followed by approval by a majority of property owners in a referendum. 
  4. Town Law §§ 196(6), 209-f(1).
  5. New York Town Law § 198(10-g).
  6. The New York General Municipal Law authorizes municipal corporations and districts to enter into intermunicipal agreements “for the performance among themselves or one for the other of their respective functions, powers and duties in a cooperative or contract basis or for the provision of a joint service or joint water, sewage or drainage project.”  N.Y. Gen. Mun. Law § 119‑o(1).
  7. The 1997 New York City Watershed Memorandum of Agreement is available at https://www.dos.ny.gov/watershed/nycmoa.html.  See also http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/watershed_protection/index.shtml.

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