Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
Oct. 12, 2021

Watershed Moments: NYC and the Catskills Past and Present

Watershed Moments: NYC and the Catskills Past and Present

For more than a century, New York City has relied on the Catskills for its abundant supply of clean, soft drinking water. The Catskills' relationship with NYC has been a complicated one, including the staggering loss of entire communities, and a multitude of mutual benefits along the way.

This week, Adam Bosch recounts the history of that relationship, plus we hear from the Olive Free Library's Melissa McHugh on an exhibit showcasing life before the Ashokan reservoir. Then, we check in with with Lize Mogel, producer of a comprehensive new tour of the watershed.


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New York City Water supplies often referred to as a marvel of modern engineering. I think it's safe to say most New York City residents, they don't really think about where their water comes from. They turn on the tap, the water comes out. There were so many thriving communities. This was a real hotspot to come and visit. Welcome to cats cast, the bi weekly podcast featuring history interviews, arts and culture, sustainability and the outdoors in the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley. For more than a century, New York City has relied on the Catskills for its abundant supply of clean soft drinking water. The Catskills relationship with NYC has been a complicated one, including the staggering loss of entire communities, and a multitude of mutual benefits along the way. This week, Adam Bosch recounts the history of that relationship. Plus, we'll hear from the olive free Library's Melissa McKeel on an exhibit showcasing life before the Ashokan reservoir. Then we'll hear from Lizzie mogul producer of a comprehensive new tour of the watershed. We start with Adam Bosh in his Kingston office at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. My name is Adam Bosh, I'm Director of Public Affairs here at New York City Department of Environmental Protection. We're the department that's in charge of operating, maintaining and protecting New York City's vast water supply, which includes six reservoirs here in the Catskills, the Catskills in New York City have a unique relationship that dates back really to the 1890s. It was in the 1890s when New York City was going through really an explosive population boom, unlike anything seen since it actually grew tenfold in 60 years. So in 1842, when the first parts of the water supply down in Westchester County were turned down the population in New York City was about 300,000 people. By the time it reaches 1900, the population New York City's about 3.5 million people. And as a result of that explosive growth, the city out paced sort of the capacity of its original water supply and found itself having to look far and wide for where its next source of water would come from. And back then, they hired three experts, Bert herring and Freeman, who were sort of the go to guys in the 1800s and early 1900s. If you are a large city in the Northeast, looking for additional source of water, they hired these guys. And they did really exhaustive studies to look at where New York City would build its next set of reservoirs. They looked at geology and precipitation and water quality and streams, and you name it, they looked at it. When I say they looked far and wide. They looked down at parts of the Hudson Valley, they looked out to the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. And not only did they look up to the Adirondacks, but they actually drew up plans for a grand tunnel that would have brought the waters of Lake George all the way into Manhattan. Ultimately, they ended up in the Catskills for a number of reasons. Two of the biggest reasons were water quality and water quantity. water quantity. I think everyone knows there's a lot of water in the Catskills. There's about 4700 miles of map streams in the Catskills. The mountains get about 46 inches of annual precipitation combined between the rain and the snow. So there was an abundance of water here. That was a good thing. The other thing that the researchers at the time looked at was water quality, they had very clear standards that they wanted to meet for the quality of the water, the water had to be clear, cool, have an equitable temperature, they didn't want it to have a lot of things in it that would be liable to cause public health problems. They didn't want things in it that would be liable to corrode pipes. And very importantly, they wanted water that was soft. Part of the challenge of the original part of New York City's water supply was that water that came from the Croton River in Westchester County, is what we would consider moderately hard that means it has a fair bit of calcium and magnesium in it. And that harder water caused a buildup of scale on industrial equipment, especially steamships as the city was becoming more and more industrial. And getting that scale off of these machines. So they would work properly was very labor intensive and very costly. So when they come here to the Catskills one of the wonderful things about the Catskills is that the underlying geology is such that we have almost no limestone, which is a major input of natural calcium into water. They come here they find some of the softest water in the world. And it is the unique softness of that water and the alkalinity and some other traits that are sort of attributed to the unique dough products in New York City. You hear about the bagels you hear about the pizza crust. It's thanks to the quality of the water here in the Catskills. So they go forth, and they decide to develop reservoirs here in the Catskills. They need to get the authority to actually do that. So in 1905, the New York State legislature passes something known at the time as the McClellan act, named for the mayor of New York City at the time, but we refer to it today as the water supply act of 1905. It's sort of set the groundwork for the water supplied being developed here in the Catskills. That law is best known for giving New York City the authority to use eminent domain procedure law to forcibly purchase land from farmers and business owners and older people who lived in the valleys that were to be flooded to create the reservoirs and along the path of the aqueducts that were ultimately to be built. And, of course, dozens of communities, hundreds, if not 1000s, of grave sites were relocated, or in the case of the communities burned down and wiped off the map forever. And that's a wound that still felt especially in the western part of our system where that was done as recently as the 1960s. That law is also interesting for other reasons. It sets a requirement that any community in any county that hosts any part of New York City's water supply has a legal right to tap into the water supply for itself if it wants to. So that's how we ended up serving 72 communities north of the city that have connections to our water supply. Those communities are in Westchester, Putnam, orange, and Ulster counties. And it also requires two forms of public access be maintained to the reservoirs forever. One is for fishing, and the other is for ice cutting, because there was no refrigeration at the time. So people needed a way to get access to ice to preserve their food. We've not gotten any requests for ice cutting in many years, as you can imagine. So the city comes up and over the course of really six decades from about 1907 all the way until the mid 1960s. It's almost constantly developing water infrastructure here in the Catskills. And that's a combination of building dams and aqueducts, building the intake chambers at the reservoirs that bring that water into the aqueducts that carry it more than 100 miles to the city, New York City is fortunate that its water has always come from areas that are in higher elevation than the city is. And so the engineers understood that they could design the aqueducts in a way to take advantage of that elevation difference by delivering the water by gravity and nothing else. A lot of other cities throughout the country don't have that luxury, they have to pump it over hills and things like that. And that's expensive, because then the cost of your water is always tied to the cost of electricity. New York City's water supply is often referred to as a marvel of modern engineering. And when you think about it, there's really two reasons for that one is just the sheer size of it. It's, you know, 19 reservoirs, three lakes, they store 570 billion gallons of water, we have almost 400 miles of aqueducts that range in size from 13 and a half feet to almost 23 feet in diameter. It's a big supply. But the other reason why it's called the marvel of modern engineering is that core concept that the water will always be delivered to the city by gravity alone. And every time the city added a new treatment facility or a new reservoir, or a new empty piece of infrastructure, it always had to meet that criteria that it would work by gravity. Not only is gravity enough to get the water to the city, but the force of gravity alone is enough to get the water up into the fourth fifth or six storey in just about every building throughout the city. So when you go to some of the older residential parts of New York City, I'm thinking parts of the east side parts of the village parts of Brooklyn even, you'll see that that classic residential building is the four or five or six storey walk up apartment building. And they were built to that height because that's how high the water could get up in them. Before we had electric pumps that could pump that water to a rooftop tower. He see all those water towers in the city. And then from there, gravity takes back over as the water drops down through the building and provides pressure that way. For the first several decades, really New York City's attitude was, you know, we have a water supply here. We have the right to have it. We have the authority to operate it stay out of our way we don't want to talk to you. That was essentially the attitude that New York City took here in the Catskills that changes for a lot of reasons. Perhaps the biggest reason is 1989 9090 federal regulations for drinking water change. And the new federal regulations say that if you are operating a surface water supply, so if you're getting your water from a reservoir, a river, a lake, anything at the surface, not groundwater, that you now have to either filter your water or you have to meet some very high standards to get a waiver to avoid filtration. And those standards were both subjective and objective the objective standards were things related to the clarity of the water and biological contamination. So you're talking about things like bacteria, and certain pathogens that can give people stomach illness, especially giardia, and Cryptosporidium. Those are two things that we test for here in Kingston in our laboratory. So that was the objective criteria. The subjective criteria, essentially said that if you wanted one of these waivers, you also had to show that you had adequate control over activities in your watershed that could be liable to pollute the water. And it was really that term adequate control, that became the focus of so much attention because nobody knew exactly what adequate control meant. It's a term that's left up to some degree of interpretation. So to show it had adequate control, the city took a number of steps at the time, it owned very little land surrounding the reservoirs. At the time, its regulations were really outdated and spoke to things like cesspools and privies, and things that really weren't common anymore. So the first thing the city did was it sent out a set of draft regulations that it had intended to impose on folks living in the watershed. And these draft regulations included things like not being able to farm within a certain distance of watercourses. Well, I just told you, there's 4700 miles of map streams. If you can't farm within a certain distance of all those streams, you essentially take a large amount of the arable land in the Catskills completely off the map for farming right, not good. The other thing I had was the siting of septic systems relative to the Depth to groundwater. Once again, a lot of water everywhere, a lot of groundwater if you couldn't cite a septic system in certain places, you're really curtailing and cutting down the amount of land that can be developed for homes or businesses in the future. So the Catskills get together band together and fight the city in court over these draft regulations. And it's through that process starting with the farmers and later with the communities that the city and the stakeholders here in the Catskills and environmental groups and political leaders begin to forge what ultimately becomes a very unique partnership, where we work together to protect this crucial resource that's not only crucial for the city, but also crucial for people here in the Catskills because clean water is important for farming and tourism and all the things that help drive the economy here in the Catskills. And what ends up coming from that is a partnership that we refer to as the watershed protection programs. There are a set of programs that sort of acknowledge that activities on the land affect the quality of the water, and so we have to control them in some way. The first one that comes out of it is the Farm Program. The farmers get together and they create something called the watershed Agricultural Council. It is a nonprofit whose board of directors is all the farmers. And they have a program where the city provides 100% of funding to help farmers plan for how they're going to farm their land, help build new infrastructure on the farms to help control the quality of the runoff that's coming off the farm. So we're talking things like covered barnyard manure storage areas, things like that, that really helped improve the quality of the runoff and reduce the amount of nutrients that are washing off the farms and into the streams because those nutrients can promote the growth of algae and things like that that are not good for water quality. It also results in the formation of the Catskill watershed Corporation, which really oversees a lot of programs that the central ones are related to wastewater and stormwater. So everyone knows that part of protecting water quality is the adequate collection and processing of wastewater. We've upgraded dozens of wastewater treatment facilities in the watershed over the years, they've replaced or repaired almost 6000 homeowner septic systems. Throughout the years, all new development projects in the Catskills have to meet some pretty high criteria for stormwater control so that we're not getting sediment or nutrient rich runoff coming into the streams, once again, that will affect water quality, and lots of other programs as well forestry project stream management projects, programs that focus on the health of the wetlands. And when you knit these all together, it's important to understand a few things one, all of the programs are funded by New York City, but almost none of them are administered by us, because we recognized early in the process and so did the partners that New York City didn't have the speed or the credibility to deliver these projects on the land. Imagine back in the 1990s. If someone came up from Brooklyn and knocked on a farmer's door in Delaware County and said, I'd like to teach you how to farm more cleanly. I don't think that would have been terribly effective. That person probably wouldn't have made it off the farm without a good tongue lashing and rightfully so. So the fact that these programs are delivered by your neighbors, adds a level of trustworthiness to them adds a level of credibility, but also the way we manage them by giving, you know large contracts to these nonprofit groups that they can go spend this money according to the terms of the contract. In a way that helps the water supply lends a certain amount of speed to it. That's very helpful. The other thing that's unique is that many of these programs are voluntary. So the Farm Program, for instance, started with five farmers who just hopped in as model farms. And when their neighbors saw that they were seeing improved health and their livestock and good crop yields in their fields, and also getting new infrastructure and new equipment as a result of it. It encouraged others to voluntarily come along and see the same benefits in terms of efficiency and infrastructure on their farms. The agreement here in the Catskills didn't just create these programs. It also allowed the city to go ahead with two other parts of the watershed protection program. One was a set of regulations governing mostly stormwater and wastewater here in the Catskills and how new development projects would have to go about collecting their wastewater and dealing with stormwater. The other thing that it allowed the city to go ahead with was really a land acquisition program. It was understood early on that being able to preserve some lands as forever wild, especially along steep slopes and watercourses was going to be important to protecting the water that ultimately ended up in the streams, rivers and creeks that feed the reservoirs. So over the past 25 years or so, the city has acquired about 140,000 acres of land here in the Catskills and preserve that land as forever wild. There's some very high criteria for wetland we can buy, it has to be vacant, it has to either be steep or wet. I'm oversimplifying it a little bit, but it has to have some direct tangible connection to protecting water quality. So it's steep, obviously, water runs off of it fast. If it's wet. If it has a stream, it has a wetland obviously, there's a pretty clear connection to water quality there. When you knit all these programs together the partnership programs, the regulatory the land acquisition program, these are considered now a worldwide model for how to protect water at its source. It's been written about in many textbooks across the world. We get here in the Catskills, I would say somewhere between two and five international delegations per year, because they've read about it, they've heard about it. A lot of cities across the globe are suffering from things that we've been able to solve through this unique partnership here in the Catskills. agricultural runoff is probably the biggest of them. We get a lot of visitors here who want to understand, hey, how did you deal with this problem of agricultural runoff that's really pestering our water supply in some way. We've had a lot of people come to learn about our forestry program and how we manage forests. We've had a lot of people come and learn about our stream management program. When you have stream bank failures or stream bed failures. What do you do to manage that stream in a way and repair that stream so that it's connected to its natural floodplain so that it's reducing its erosive power during big storms? You know, we've really risen to the top along with our partners as the expert in this field worldwide. And so you get a lot of people here who want to come and soak up that knowledge. So it's a really unique partnership that the city and the Catskills have, it was forged initially by law, and then later reforged out of sort of the necessity to understand that working together was in the interest of both the city and the Catskills. And going forward, there's a lot of opportunity and challenges in the future as we continue to protect the water supply, operate the water supply, and maintain the water supply. Because you know, a lot of parts of the water supply now are reaching 100 years old. A few years ago, we announced a project that will be at least $750 million at a Shokin reservoir probably rise to be even more expensive than that where we have to refer biche, all the dams and the valve chambers and everything that was built 100 years ago so that it will last another century. So there's going to be a lot of work here in the Catskills over the next couple decades as we not only operate but maintain and protect the water supply long into the future. In a moment, we'll hear from Melissa McHugh and Lizzie mogul on two new watershed projects. But first, a word from our sponsors. Cats cast is supported by Dixon roadside, serving up a unique twist on comfort food using fresh ingredients sourced from the bountiful farms and small businesses of the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley open for takeout with a heated patio and indoor seating in Woodstock, New York. And by the central Catskills Chamber of Commerce, providing services to businesses, community organizations and local governments in the central Catskills region. Follow the central Catskills Chamber of Commerce on Facebook and sign up for a weekly email of local events at Central catskills.org We're members are you and now to the onto your athletic fields, where we met up with Melissa McHugh, a dedicated soccer mom and the curator of a new exhibit on the watershed. i My name is Melissa McHugh and I am the Project archivist for the aloe free library. I am currently working on the collections of the reservoir as well as important local history to Olive. We have a museum exhibit happening right now that is called life before the reservoir, you can come in and see it at any time just request to go into the museum room and have access to that give me a sense of what life was before the reservoir and what inspired the idea to put a exhibit around it? Well, it seems like we all kind of have gotten used to the reservoir being here. We know what happened in a sense, but I thought it was really important to show really what the area look like prior to all the demolition that happened with the reservoir, there were so many thriving communities, this was a real hotspot to come and visit before this all happened. And then to compare it to what it all looks like today is pretty astounding. And when you say the reservoir, so we're in the town of Olive right now. So that would be the Ashokan reservoir, correct, the Ashokan reservoir. And even where we're sitting right now the town of boys fill would have been moved because of the reservoir. So that was one of the how many towns were displaced or that you're featuring in this exhibit. There was something like 12 towns that were either demolished or their boundaries were moved and just completely rewritten. There were about 15 One room schoolhouses at the time, before everything happened. And because a lot of people had to relocate and everything else, things had to change. And that's why they were all consolidated at one point, and we have just our one small community now. Can you just give us a sense of the scope of the exhibit that you've put together? Sure. So it does have a lot of the one room schoolhouses, it also shows a lot of the commerce that was happening in the area at the time, what the towns look like some before and after photos of people's homes that were leveled to make room for the reservoir, as well as some of the grave sites that had to be moved for the reservoir. All of these photos and books and ephemera were part of the existing collection of library. Yes, they were part of the existing collection, we are welcoming anybody who wants to donate more articles that are in a similar fashion to what our collection policy is. What does that collection policy. So basically anything that's local history to the community, town of all of and the community surrounding it, anything that has to do with the reservoir, anything that has to do with any of life before the reservoir, tanneries, wood Mills, gris Mills, anything that was happening here, prior to and also after the reservoir? What is the name of the exhibit? And how long will it continue? The name of the exhibit is life before the reservoir, and it should be up for a good six months at this point, we may tweak it and add some things here and there, but it should be up for quite a while for people to come and take a look at I mean hours of the exhibit are the same as the library they are. So even if the doors are open to the museum room, you can just ask to have it opened and have access to it anytime anyone is welcome to come in and look. Thank you. You're welcome. And finally, we checked in with Brooklyn based artist and educator, Lizzie mogul. We've been working with her on a new audio series called views from the watershed. Here's Lizzy by phone to explain the project. Hi, I'm Lizzie mogul. I am an artist and an educator and a counter cartographer, meaning that I use maps to talk about political and social issues. And I've also heard you describe yourself. I can't remember was it a water geek or a water nerd? And I'm also a water nerd. Yeah, what does that mean? And the water nerd and I'm a water infrastructure nerd. It just means that for the last five or six years, most of my research in my work has been focused on learning about water and water infrastructure, and how water infrastructure forms social relations, whether it means to or not. So I've just been a little bit obsessed with learning about specifically New York City where I live learning about New York City's water infrastructure, how it works and who it affects. And you are so interested in it that a few years back, I believe you created a bus tour. Yeah, so I live in New York City, for the most part. And since 2016, I've been working in the Catskills learning about the relationship between New York City and the Catskills that is produced by the city's water infrastructure and the fact that the Catskills provides 90% of the city's water. In the course of all of this work, I decided that one of the things I wanted to do was to bring people from New York City to the Catskills to show them the places where their water comes from. And to meet some of the people that take care of this water in various ways, because I think it's safe to say most New York City residents don't really think about where their water comes from, they turn on the tap, the water comes out. Usually it comes out, and it ends there. But the story of New York City's water is a very kind of long and complicated story. And the relationship between the city in the Catskills is super complicated. And I think it's really important for New Yorkers to understand that, you know, this great water that comes out of the tap freely every day, actually comes at a price to upstate communities that are 100 miles or so away from New York City, and that have a very different kind of relationship to that water. Is it a price or a benefit? Or is there a little bit of both the early history of the water supply? I would say that water came at a price because the early history of the water supply is one of displacement, the city came in and use eminent domain to displace a large number of rural communities. And that left a generational impact on the Catskills and a lot of bad feelings. And in the 80s, when the city needed to renegotiate that relationship, things changed. The towns in the New York City watershed organized and they made themselves a seat at the table. And so the negotiation that came out of that was very beneficial to people in the Catskills. You know, the Catskills would continue to do what they do and taking care of the water upstate and upstream from New York City, but they would be compensated for it. A lot of people that I talked to for this podcast tour, consider that a big benefit. So you just did podcast tour. And that's what the bus tour would ultimately become. But let's go back to the bus tour for a minute. Just tell me a little bit more about how that works. So I created a bus tour program. And we launched it in 2019. I ran two tours, and we got people on the bus for about six hours. And we visited two reservoirs, two separate watersheds, a couple of towns and a cemetery. And at each stop somebody who was what I would say watershed involved met the group and talk to them about kind of managing or advocating for or living in the watershed. And so that included historian Diane Galicia and and Bosch Wendell George from the Catskill Mountain Club, Tim Kotch, and Aaron Bennett from the Ashokan, watershed stream management program. And Marian Greenfield who's historian who refurbish the compact and cemetery. And it was a really successful program. And we were all set to do it in the next year, and then the pandemic happened. So that put an end to that. But that wasn't the end, you actually had the idea to morph this into an audio tour. Can you tell me about how that came about? Yeah, so because you can't take 50 people on a bus safely during a pandemic, I was able to turn the bus tour idea into a different format. And I decided on doing an audio tour, and allowed me to expand the number of people that could be involved and expand the geography. So in the end, it worked out really well. And so this podcast tour, which is called views from the watershed, features 12 different people, including myself, who are all watershed managers, watershed stewards are live in the watershed or work in the watershed. And they all have really different perspectives on what it means to be a part of this huge system, where they're kind of intimately connected to New York City, whether they like it or not. It's not a traditional audio tour. It's a podcast tour, because as you know, in the Catskills, there's not cell reception everywhere, so you can't necessarily download something or listen to something on the spot. So you download all of the podcasts beforehand. There's 10 different spots where these podcasts are located at so you drive to a spot and you listen to that particular podcast while you're on the site. And then of course, if you're an Ontario tourist, you can also listen at home. Okay, great. So where can people find that tour? Right now you can access it online at walking the watershed.com/podcasts tour one word, and then in a couple of weeks, it will be available on podcast apps everywhere. There are seven episodes up right now. And there's another seven to come. So it's 14 episodes in total. And one more time just give us the web address. Yeah, so you can listen to the episodes at walking the watershed.com/ Podcast tour. And you can also follow updates on Instagram at walking underscore the underscore watershed. Well thank you Lizzie for calling in for this episode of cats cast. Yeah, love cats cast. Thumbs up. Thank you talk to you soon. See you next time you're up in the Catskills. Good thanks to Adam Bosch, Melissa McHugh and Lizzie mobile for participating in this week's cats cast. Cats cast is a production of silver hollow audio. Please be sure to subscribe wherever podcasts are found for free and automatic delivery every two weeks. Thanks again to our local sponsors and to you, our listeners for your contributions to the show. If you'd like to contribute, just click Support at cats cast.com And please give us a rating so more people can find us. Until next time. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai