Community vitality is a little-examined element of the 1997 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). This chapter briefly summarizes the impetus and methods for community vitality studies in relation to the Watershed Protection Program. Although these topics lie outside of the Committee’s statement of task, they were included in the report in response to issues and concerns raised at our meetings and during site visits with a diverse array of watershed community members. Socioeconomic research that builds upon the scientific, technical, and engineering reviews presented in this consensus report could help to systematically address opportunities and constraints for watershed communities, New York City (NYC), other communities connected to the NYC system, and the state of New York. This, in turn, could help stakeholders to refine and improve the design and implementation of the Watershed Protection Program in years to come.
The MOA seeks to not only protect drinking water, but also rural communities in the watershed (Finnegan, 1997). References to community vitality tend to primarily emphasize economic elements, but also refer to social elements as well, mentioned intermittently. In 1995, Governor George Pataki described … “a deep commitment by all sides to protect the drinking water for millions of New Yorkers and the economic vitality of the watershed communities.” The MOA is an ‘Agreement in principle’ to “maintain and enhance the quality of the City’s drinking water supply while protecting the economic vitality and social character of watershed communities” (MOA, Article 1, Clause 6).
The Committee interpreted inclusion of “social character” of communities in the MOA as the impetus to address the well-being of the watershed communities in a way that includes but transcends economic well-being. Although regional economic vitality is clearly important and related to community vitality, it is beyond the scope of this review to analyze and discuss it in meaningful detail. Socioeconomic research, both basic and applied, would be needed to elucidate and better understand the complex changes occurring in the region and the associated statistical information in order to make positive contributions to the work of partner organizations and the Watershed Protection Program.
The last 25 years show that the quality of drinking water for NYC consumers has been intensively managed and scrutinized, while attention to the well-being of watershed communities has been limited and not emphasized as programmatic outcomes of the MOA. Certainly, many millions of dollars have been invested in a diverse range of watershed protection programs. Yet the potential outcomes and benefits of these programs, irrespective of their potential contribution to community well-being, are largely cast in terms of effects on water quality, filtration avoidance milestones, and regulatory requirements. The implicit assumption appears to be that when money is expended by the Watershed Protection Program, watershed communities benefit (directly or indirectly) from these resources, both economically and socially (e.g., by gaining wastewater treatment, septic system repairs and upgrades, recreational access, and employment opportunities). Such assumed benefits may or may not actually occur, and the outcomes of these efforts are not systematically assessed. This
implicit assumption also does not consider alternative scenarios, opportunity costs, and social or econometric estimates of impacts.
Operationalizing “community vitality” is not easy. Myriad theories and empirical assessments within the social sciences emphasize different constructs, metrics, and causes. On one level, economic vitality should be relatively straightforward to assess because the injection of money into the local or regional system ought to have economic effects and these effects are readily measurable via conventional regional economic modeling approaches. However, it is more challenging to assess whether actions are protecting the “social character” aspect of community vitality. To do so, a well-founded project design, long-term commitment, and specialized knowledge are needed to assess community well-being. For this report, the terms “vitality” and “well-being” are used interchangeably, as much of the social science research about communities examines “well-being” in society. As with water quality patterns, processes, and trends, community well-being should be assessed over time and across places. It also requires systematic analyses of potential relationships—both positive and negative—between community well-being and water quality protection activities, even if such contributions are not emphasized in Watershed Protection Program goals and outcomes. Examples of potential relationships might be (1) how do investments in various agricultural best management practices contribute to farm viability and employment? (2) do septic system programs increase housing values? (3) do restrictions on where development can occur impede the growth of new businesses?
The only previous review of the social or economic well-being of watershed communities is the “West-of-Hudson Economic Development Study” commissioned by the Catskill Watershed Corporation (HR&A, 1999). The study was done by a consulting firm asked to characterize and review the economy of the Catskill and Delaware systems. The central focus of the study was to compile, analyze, and present the data and information needed to design appropriate loan and grant programs and to advise on mechanisms for administering the Catskill Fund for the Future. Most relevant to this Committee’s charge, the study sought to establish an economic baseline for the region and identify strengths and weaknesses of the watershed business base.
The 1999 report documents the economic decline that occurred within the watershed during the 1990s, when much of the nation was prospering, including the lower-than-state-average incomes within the watershed and the lack of large employers. Economic weaknesses or obstacles included limited developable land (based on private versus public ownership and topography), fragmentation and/or isolation, poorly developed infrastructure (including transportation), and poor regional marketing and weak coordination. Identified strengths included location relative to large population centers, quality of life (including natural amenities), attractive communities, and a strong agricultural base. The study method was strong, and many of its recommendations have been incorporated into current program efforts. The study has contributed to regional action for two decades. However, one project is not a meaningful commitment to community vitality, compared to the continuous and substantial investments in streamflow and water quality monitoring and modeling.
A second report, “Farms in Transition,” was published in 2018 by the NYC DEP to focus on agriculture within the watershed. This report documents changes to farming in the watershed, noting that these changes are similar to those in comparable parts of the United States, and attributable to the same operational, financial and economic pressures. The report documents a decline from about 350 large farms in 1994 to about 200 in 2018. In addition, the type of farming operations has changed appreciably, as discussed in Chapter 5, with a major shift from dairy cows to beef cattle and horses. The Watershed Agricultural Council estimates that 85 percent of watershed farmers are over 50 years old and 30 percent are over 64 years old, indicating a coming wave of farm turnover. The 2017 filtration avoidance determination refers to a “transitioning farm” as agricultural land at risk of foreclosure, and/or farms with retiring farmers (presumably available for development). Although few readily available data exist on the number of transitioning farms during any period of time, the Watershed Agricultural Council forecasts that ~55,000 acres may change ownership by 2028 (of the 83,000 acres of farmland currently enrolled in the Watershed Agricultural Program).
The field of “social indicators research” has theoretical principles and assessment practices focused on community well-being and closely related topics. They are briefly summarized below to serve as a starting point for stakeholder review and discussion. Indicators of social and economic well-being range from readily available public data and information to detailed, site-specific measures. For example, economic vitality indicators such as community demographics, rates of unemployment, and income can be obtained from U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, and Bureau of Labor Statistics data archives and analyzed with a suite of statistical methods. These measures and metrics are quantitative, correlated, standardized, and readily understood by a broad audience. Researchers could use these data and information resources to characterize how watershed communities are faring economically and how they have changed over time. In addition, it would be helpful to compare watershed communities with reference communities of equivalent size and biophysical characteristics but outside of the NYC water supply system to explore the potential effects “with and without” the Watershed Protection Program (directly analogous to the paired watershed studies used to quantify land use and/or watershed management effects discussed in Chapters 5 and 9).
A well-designed community well-being study also would include common and readily accessible social indicators such as measures of social pathology (e.g., crime and divorce rates) and opportunity (e.g., migration rates and educational achievement). Analytically, for each of these standardized categories of indicators, it is often important to look beyond averages or measures of central tendency to the distribution and variation around the mean. Some communities have a bimodal income distribution (e.g., many low-income households and a few very affluent households). Others have a large middle-income group where average income is normally distributed and clustered tightly around the mean.
Not all communities are equally well described by standard economic, social and demographic statistics or indicators (e.g., income distribution). For example, employment or education-based indicators are less reflective of the well-being of a community dominated by retirees or second homeowners. Recent studies have addressed this complexity by developing “locally defined” indicators to characterize the visions and priorities that particular communities define for themselves (Parkins et al., 2001). Finally, “process” indicators (Beckley et al., 2002) are inherently “subjective”1 in that they speak directly to the lived experience of community residents and as such require in-depth community research. These measures and methods have expanded rapidly in recent years (e.g., Diener, 2000), culminating in widely accepted, peer-reviewed studies in a diverse array of communities. An overview of some elements of community well-being will highlight linkages to the MOA, the Watershed Protection Program, the concerns and aspirations of watershed communities, and the potential to inform future efforts.
Social Capital and Community Cohesion
Made famous by the work of Putnam (2000), based on earlier work by Coleman (1988), social capital includes elements such as interpersonal relationships, shared sense of identity, norms, and expectations that lead to high levels of trust, cooperation, and reciprocity. People make investments in relationships and community, and these investments become a resource. Communities that enjoy high levels of social capital function more smoothly because trust, norms of reciprocity, and solidarity derived from social capital facilitate motivation to leverage resources and efforts to support one another. Relationships that form the foundation of social capital can be challenged by in- and out-migration; that is, if long-term residents are replaced with those from potentially different backgrounds, norms may become less clear, and these relationships strained (Salamon, 2007). As such, the maintenance of agriculture, for example, is not simply about maintaining landscape meanings and farm economies, but also about maintaining continuity in relationships.
1 Following Stedman (2016), “subjective” is not the same as “random” or “ad hoc.” Subjective indicators that emphasize the perspective of individuals within the watershed can be measured systematically and compared over time and between communities.
Social-Ecological Resilience—Ability to Respond to Stressors
Although definitions of community resilience have proliferated in recent years (see Magis, 2010, for a review), what these definitions have in common is the ability of a community to respond to some sort of perturbation or disturbance and return to equilibrium without crossing a threshold or tipping point into an undesirable state. Social-ecological resilience thus refers to the characteristics of a community that enable the community to adapt and respond to stressors, both acute and chronic. Many analyses focus on responses to acute stressors including natural disturbances or extreme events (e.g., Cutter et al., 2008) such as the floods caused by Tropical Storms Irene and Lee in the Catskills. However, pressures on a community may slowly build over many years, with multiple causes, rather than one simple dramatic event (Stedman and Ingalls, 2013). Rural resilience engages many topics (Young, 2016), but one common example relevant to the NYC watershed region is the chronic decline of “Main Street” businesses across the United States.
Sense of Place
Sense of place refers to the attachment and meanings held for a particular landscape or region and its distinctive ecological, cultural, and historical components (Masterson et al., 2017; Stedman, 2002; Tuan, 1977). Attachment is the sense of personal and collective connection to a place and the importance of the landscape and communities to a person or group. Meanings refers to the sense of a landscape’s essential character (i.e., what kind of place is it commonly thought to be).
As described in Chapter 2, a long-established sense of place is particularly strong within the Catskills and is widely cited as a component of community vitality. However, the watershed includes diverse perspectives. Many entities in the watershed hold a sense of place consistent with the language in the MOA describing aspirations to maintain specific landscape meanings (e.g., “a viable agricultural community”). Some residents see these meanings as “threatened” by outside interests (such as the external controls put on land use by NYC DEP, especially through land acquisition). Others, including but not limited to second homeowners, view the region as a place of open space for enjoyment and recreation. Some of the perceived conflict between year-round and sometimes maligned second homeowners is based on differences in these meanings (see Armstrong and Stedman, 2013), as the idea of the region providing both clean water and a playground for wealthier NYC residents, although historically consistent, has challenged the meanings held by some watershed residents for many generations. This diversity of meanings has implications for the long-term success of the MOA and the Watershed Protection Program because people make decisions and act based on their beliefs. Communities that can maintain important meanings—especially a plurality of meanings—and are also places to which residents are strongly attached, are typically more resilient and sustainable (Stedman, 1999), and are better able to cope with external stressors and change (Masterson et al., 2017).
Many of these more subjective or qualitative process indicators can be reliably and consistently assessed via indicator approaches. For example, social capital can be evaluated via rates of membership in organizations as well as participation rates in other organized activities. Regardless of the suite of indicators used, analyses of systematic patterns of variation can be conducted within communities, between communities, or within a community over time (Stedman, 2016). Comparisons across communities (i.e., how does Community A differ from Community B) that include those within and outside of the NYC water supply system could be especially instructive, as long as they are relatively similar in other key domains (e.g., population, and demographics). Furthermore, standard indicators can be tracked within a particular community over time, especially in response to programmatic change. These two analytical methods are often used in combination, for example, asking how communities within the NYC water supply system differ from communities outside the system and whether these differences change over time.
To what extent is community well-being embedded in the current suite of NYC DEP watershed protection programs? NYC DEP has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in these subprograms, and while most do not address community vitality directly, some do (see Table 1-1), and others could do so more explicitly and effectively, with modification. What is most needed is a mechanism to better assess community vitality, so that watershed management subprogram contributions can be more systematically considered and determined. At a minimum, the subprograms, as a whole, have indirect positive impacts on community vitality via their improvements to water quality since healthy ecosystems are foundational to healthy communities. The following sections discuss three broad types of existing subprograms, relative to their potential to aid community well-being.
First, many subprograms have obvious existing local-level community effects that could be better articulated with improved communication and outreach. For example, the wastewater treatment plant upgrades and new wastewater treatment facilities were a windfall to local communities since costs to install and maintain are borne by NYC DEP. Advanced wastewater treatment infrastructure certainly delivers local benefits related to community vitality, as centralized wastewater facilities support larger-scale economic development. The importance of these facilities to community development should be better understood and communicated.
Second, the Watershed Agricultural Program offers technical and financial assistance for best management practices, along with the protection of riparian buffers through the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. The degree to which Watershed Agricultural Program efforts support farm viability should be acknowledged as promoting and sustaining rural agricultural landscapes (even if doing so is not the primary program mission). Further, the flood hazard mitigation subprograms of the Stream Management Program provide essential support in reducing community threats from flooding. Programs that contribute financially to refurbishing and/or replacing aging or defective septic systems, to controlling stormwater, and to reducing damages and disruptions from extreme events all provide direct benefit to property owners.
Other programs have less obvious community impacts, but their effects could be better understood with additional analyses. Broadly speaking, these programs deliver environmental and natural resource outcomes that may contribute to social and economic well-being of communities. That is, high-quality surface water is important to community well-being in terms of recreation (cold-water angling), amenity values, and economic development. These benefits do not all flow downstream but favorably influence the entire system. Examples include programs that aim to maintain or enhance water quality within the NYC water supply system such as the Stream Management Program, the Land Management Program (with its emphasis on expanded recreation) and the natural resources management and forestry programs.
Third, some programs, at least as currently constituted, may adversely affect community well-being. The Watershed Rules and Regulations contribute to an asymmetry in power that has sharpened perceptions of many other program efforts. Although agreed upon in the MOA, they have potential to undermine both trust and place meanings of watershed residents that emphasize self-reliance and local control. The Land Acquisition Program is seen (as the Committee heard from community leaders and members during meetings and site visits) as adversely influencing community character by limiting or eliminating certain locally desired land uses, such as residential development that could increase the local tax base and the siting of businesses that could foster economic development. Acquisition of sensitive land in river valleys has been seen as impeding community and economic development.
Except for the two projects cited earlier (HR&A, 1999; NYC DEP, 2018), little or no monitoring or analysis of the economic vitality and social well-being of watershed communities has occurred. This is not unique to the NYC water supply system. Serious social economic monitoring and analysis of projects such as this is relatively uncommon beyond summary statistics derived from U.S. Census data and other publicly available sources. Although water quality protection and community vitality were described as joint goals of the MOA, measuring community vitality has not been evident during the first 25 years of the Watershed Protection Program. As the program enters a new phase, more performance monitoring (as opposed to regulatory compliance monitoring) for community vitality objectives would help to answer the complex questions at the center of adaptive management and continuous improvement efforts.
As with water quality monitoring and trend assessment, socioeconomic monitoring of watershed communities requires sustained data collection over time, using multiple measures and methods. A recent study entitled “The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010” (McMartin Long and Bauer, 2019) is an excellent example of a traditional approach using publicly available data. Although such analyses are relatively easy and inexpensive, they do not tell the whole story. Supplemental primary data also should be collected within the watershed communities. Some social indicator data would require periodic surveys or interview efforts. Input-output or computational general equilibrium economic models (Bergman, 1991) would be helpful to explore and understand the effects—positive and negative, expected and unanticipated—of Watershed Protection Program activities. At a bare minimum, the 1999 economic assessment should be repeated to document and systematically analyze two decades of change.
The Watershed Protection Program would benefit from additional and substantial monitoring and analyses of community vitality. Such studies of economic vitality and social well-being could include assessing the causes and consequences of (a) change over time, (b) differences between communities, and (c) variation within communities to inform the refinement and implementation of the Watershed Protection Program. Comprehensive social and economic analyses are needed to update earlier work, test working hypotheses, fill critical gaps in knowledge, and establish baseline conditions to provide a foundation for understanding future programmatic effects. These socioeconomic projects are needed if the full potential of the Watershed Protection Program and the intent of the MOA—enhancement of water quality protection and community vitality—are to be fully realized.
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