Gotham Gazette

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The Remarkable Story Of How New York City Gets Its Water


Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part interview. 

NEW YORK — Largely invisible — but essential — is New York City’s water supply system, stretching across 125 miles and delivering over one billion gallons of drinking water to nine million people.

In his new book, Empire of Water (Cornell University Press), historian and public policy expert David Soll takes a multifaceted look at New York City’s water supply system, one of the largest, largely unfiltered municipal water supply systems on the planet. The system, which relies on mountain water flowing into upstate reservoirs, is delivered to the city through an astounding network of tunnels and aqueducts.

Soll spoke to the Gotham Gazette in an an exclusive interview last month about how that system came to be through rough-and-tumble politics, the destruction of entire towns and the flooding of thousands of acres of land. 

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Soll also touches upon the engineering challenges that New York City faced as it constructed the system; and the social, economic and regulatory shifts that would force New York City to re-think how it managed its water supply system in the last decades of the 20th century.

He also explores what led to the 1997 Watershed Agreement, a landmark urban-rural accord that enabled New York City to obtain permission from the federal government to avoid construction of a multi-billion dollar filtration plant. The Watershed Agreement cements a close partnership between New York City and upstate communities in the Catskills and the Delaware River Basin in order to maintain water purity through sewage management, sustainable farming practices, limits on development, and other strategies.

Soll, an urban environmental historian who teaches environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, focuses his research on the relationship between urban and rural areas and in the role that water plays in shaping the urban built environment. He is working on a study of the water supply and sanitation in Bangalore, India.

GG: Was there something in particular that really surprised you as you wrote the story of the city’s water supply system?

DS: What surprised me was the ability of people to overcome a lot of misunderstanding and rancor that in many other situations present obstacles that are too high to get over. There are a lot of lessons from the story of the New York City water supply, but one of them has to do with the passage of time. There was a lot of resentment and misunderstanding on both sides, but the fact that the [1997] Watershed Agreement [between New York City and upstate watershed communities] was discussed in the 1990s, rather than in the 1970s or the 1950s was really important ... There’s a lot of resentment and conflict that is still ongoing but these two sides — who were really diametrically opposed and had very different viewpoints — were able to come together.

The other thing that surprised me was the importance of particular individuals … People tend to talk about government as an abstraction, as a faceless entity. This story showed me that people in particular points in time can really make a difference one way or the other … It’s not just rules and regulations—it’s actually individual people.

GG: What are the fundamental elements of the story of how the city built its water supply system, from the mid-19th century to 1967, which you describe as the end of its expansionist period?

DS: For most of that period, until roughly the 1950s, New York was experiencing really tremendous growth. The consolidation of the city in 1898 was an important part of that story. The water system developed in tandem with that population growth. There was a fairly explicit understanding on the part of the people who were responsible for the water supply system that growth was good and growth was necessary, and they had to keep expanding the system to keep up with the pace of growth. Conservation was reserved for emergencies. It wasn’t part of the normal course of business.

They [the City] expanded the Croton system until they got virtually every drop that was available. The last piece of that [Croton system] was completed in 1911 … They had to figure out where to go for more water and they ended up getting it from the Catskills. That same cycle repeats itself where they complete the Ashokan Reservoir and they just keep building and building … It’s a constant expansion — more, more, more — until some combination of politics, financial circumstances and the environmental movement cause them to take a different approach.

GG: What was the source water for the Croton system?

DS: The Croton River and also its tributaries. They [the City] complete the New Croton Aqueduct in 1890/1891, and it’s basically this really powerful straw, but they don’t have enough water to supply the straw … Right after they build this aqueduct, there’s this drought and they’re concerned about running out of water ... they find that they don’t have enough storage capacity to make sure they can always fill the aqueduct. Even within that [Croton] system they are constantly expanding and building additional reservoirs to keep up with the conveyance power of the aqueduct.

GG: What is an aqueduct exactly?

DS: In New York’s case, it’s a pipe or tunnel, a horseshoe shaped structure that is going to convey the water from reservoirs underground generally to a reservoir in the city, from which it goes into water mains ... One of the paradoxes of the New York system is that it’s an incredible system, but you can’t see a lot of it. For the most part the system is invisible.

GG: You talk about how unification of the city in 1898 saved Brooklyn from a water supply crisis.

DS: Brooklyn was really struggling … They were trying to get more water from infiltration galleries and wells on Long Island. Brooklyn was growing tremendously. It was annexing a lot of communities, many of which decided to join Brooklyn in part because of improved services … Gravesend, Flatbush and these other villages that had been independent entities ... Brooklyn was trying as hard it could to keep pace with the growth … A lot of it was financial. They didn’t have the real estate resources to raise the funds to expand the system in a significant way. By the 1890s it had become a pretty perilous situation. There had to be some sort of a larger solution, and consolidation provided that. One of the points that was raised prior to the vote on consolidation was that it would save Brooklyn’s water supply.

GG: You use the term “urban democratic imperialism” to describe how New York City initially related to communities in the Catskills as it searched for new sources of water.

DS: I would no longer describe it that way. I don’t think that the relationship today fits that bill. For me, a lot of the book is about the evolution in that relationship from one that is more one-sided to one that is certainly much more balanced. That’s what the narrative arc is about.

New York City [historically] is the economic engine of the state. Even though in the late 19th/early 20th century and beyond the Legislature is dominated by rural interests, there’s a recognition that New York City needs an adequate water supply to function. And if New York City falls apart, the state is not going to succeed. Through the democratic system, through the legislature, New York [City] is able to secure rights to take water from the Catskills. That’s the democratic part — they have to get permission from the state.

But the way they actually go about it, they pretty much have free reign. There are a lot of caveats to that. They had to compensate people [for the seizure of farms, businesses, etc. that stood in the way of reservoir and aqueduct construction] … some people were fairly compensated, some clearly were not, some of that had to do with gender and education … New York [City] got pretty much what it wanted. It certainly had to do some things — maintain certain highways and bridges, compensate people who were directly affected … For the most part, it held most of the cards. That’s what begins to change because of the environmental movement and some of these federal laws. 

GG: As the book goes on, the city’s construction of new reservoirs in the Catskills seems more questionable. You argue that the city had other options, like conserving water through metering and tapping the Hudson River, which they refused to do.

DS: A lot of this gets back to self-image. To this day, one of the points of pride of the city is its excellent water supply. It’s part of the ethos and self-identity of the city. That was a big part of the debate about the Hudson … We’re a world class city after World War II … The idea that we’re going to take this crappy water from the Hudson? No way.

There clearly were other alternatives that existed. It’s clear a city the size of New York had to obtain water from outside the city. If New York [City] had been serious about conserving water from the nineteen-teens or nineteen-twenties, maybe they didn’t need to build all those reservoirs. That’s a little bit speculative but it’s not a crazy assertion. It’s quite possible they could have instilled an ethos of conservation. This is what happened in many other cities. New York [City] was way behind the times. They didn’t start really getting serious about metering residential properties until the late 1980s/early 90s, and they didn’t finish that until several years ago.

The differences between Philadelphia and New York [City] are quite stark. Philadelphia was taking dirty water from industrial rivers and cleaning it up, and putting a lot of emphasis on conservation. And New York is doing the exact opposite. They’re taking this very pure water from far away and they’re not too concerned with how much they use. It is a disturbing story and it shows various things. This gets back to the imperial angle. No one was too concerned about what New York City was doing … The state aided and abetted that behavior. The federal government wasn’t on the scene in terms of regulating municipal water supply in any serious way. New York [City] was sort of this colossus that could do what it wanted to do. By the 1970s/80s that starts to change. And the real wake-up call comes in the late 80s, early 1990s when the federal government orders it to build a filtration plant. That’s this really significant moment where I think the story is before and after that point in time.

GG: So the state did not pressure the city of New York to look at other water supply options — like the Hudson River — because of its economic importance?

DS: That was part of it, and there was a lot of inertia. They had built all of these other reservoirs. There were a few thousand people who were going to be directly affected [by the building of the last reservoir and dam project, Cannonsville in Delaware County]. New York City had tremendous political power at that point [1950s and 60s]. There were mechanisms — the state Water Power and Control Commission — that had to sign off on the plans for building Cannonsville. But the whole discussion — at the state level — became about the quality of the Hudson water. New York City did an excellent job of framing the argument and making it be about how polluted the Hudson was rather than … We can clean it up.

As it turns out, the Cannonsville Reservoir has not been a resounding success. It’s prone to a lot of pollution problems, particularly more so in the past when there was more agricultural activity … In many cases the reservoir — for a certain period of time — doesn’t get used that much for the purpose it was built for. That decision [to build Cannonsville] probably didn’t make a lot of sense. New York [City] could have gotten the next increment of water from the Hudson. You could have saved that landscape from being developed... That story could have turned and taken a different direction. I hadn’t seen very much discussed [about this] in the research I had done — people just glossed it over.

[But] I ended up finding these papers of Abel Wolman … the most prominent sanitary engineer in the United States [he was sharply criticized for his recommendation that the city look seriously at the use of Hudson River water] … It was this interesting “what if” kind of moment … He’s this sort of enemy of the city in the 1950s, and then he comes back in the 1980s [at age 94] and gives a very powerful presentation at a public hearing [on the need to increase safeguards for the city’s upstate watershed]. He’s been part of the story for 40 to 50 years … That was one of my favorite things that happened in researching the book.

GG: What were others?

One of the most rewarding aspects of the research was figuring out that New York has all these reservoirs and water-related infrastructure that became other things that most people are not aware of. There’s this whole network of parks and the Great Lawn and pools and other things that used to be reservoirs that are now this pretty formidable recreational network. I kept turning up examples of the connection between the water system and culture and recreation.

One of the conditions of building the [about to be completed] Croton filtration plant was that New York City agreed to pump a couple hundred extra million dollars into rehabilitating parks in the Bronx. The filtration plant is being constructed in Van Cortlandt Park and there was a lot of resistance to losing parkland … in order to get the deal through the state Legislature, New York [City] had to agree [to this investment] … a significant number of rehabilitation projects [have been] funded with money linked to the water system. To me, that was one of the most interesting aspects of the book … the transformation of what the city itself looked like. As they started to get more water from outside the city, the [original] reservoirs within the city could then be turned over for other uses, parks, libraries, etc.

GG: It seems like a part of our history that’s so below the radar. Why don’t we have more of a sense of that part of our physical heritage?

DS: That’s a good question. Part of it is that these things are geographically scattered. Williamsbridge Park in the Bronx, which is far away from Ridgewood Reservoir in Brooklyn, which is far away from the main branch of the New York Public Library [the main library building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue is the former site of the Croton Reservoir, a four-story gray edifice that dominated what would become midtown Manhattan] … It’s not well advertised. They are also scattered in time … This is something that happens over and over again. The water system shaped what the city itself looked like. That was really important to me.


Note about the featured image: 

Completed in 1915, the Ashokan Reservoir holds 122.9 billion gallons at full capacity. The Reservoir is located in Ulster County, about 13 miles west of Kingston and 73 miles north of New York City. It was formed by the damming of Esopus Creek, which eventually flows northeast and drains into the Hudson River. Including the water it receives from the Schoharie Reservoir, the Ashokan supplies about 40% of New York City's daily drinking water in non-drought periods.

According to David Soll, construction of the Ashokan flooded several thousand acres, erased eight towns, and forced two thousand people to relocate.

All images courtesy of the city's Department of Environmental Protection.  

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