Empire of Water

Empire of Water: An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Empire of Water
    Book Description:

    Supplying water to millions is not simply an engineering and logistical challenge. As David Soll shows in his finely observed history of the nation's largest municipal water system, the task of providing water to New Yorkers transformed the natural and built environment of the city, its suburbs, and distant rural watersheds. Almost as soon as New York City completed its first municipal water system in 1842, it began to expand the network, eventually reaching far into the Catskill Mountains, more than one hundred miles from the city. Empire of Water explores the history of New York City's water system from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century, focusing on the geographical, environmental, and political repercussions of the city's search for more water.

    Soll vividly recounts the profound environmental implications for both city and countryside. Some of the region's most prominent landmarks, such as the High Bridge across the Harlem River, Central Park's Great Lawn, and the Ashokan Reservoir in Ulster County, have their origins in the city's water system. By tracing the evolution of the city's water conservation efforts and watershed management regime, Soll reveals the tremendous shifts in environmental practices and consciousness that occurred during the twentieth century. Few episodes better capture the long-standing upstate-downstate divide in New York than the story of how mountain water came to flow from spigots in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

    Soll concludes by focusing on the landmark watershed protection agreement signed in 1997 between the city, watershed residents, environmental organizations, and the state and federal governments. After decades of rancor between the city and Catskill residents, the two sides set aside their differences to forge a new model of environmental stewardship. His account of this unlikely environmental success story offers a behind the scenes perspective on the nation's most ambitious and wide-ranging watershed protection program.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6807-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION The Evolution of a Water System
    (pp. 1-10)

    Road atlas designers generally divide New York State into two sections. The densely populated southeastern quadrant consumes a page, while the sprawling northern and western sections require two pages. This convention highlights a rather startling reality: with the exception of the Hudson River, the most prominent inland bodies of water in the region that stretches from Long Island to the Catskill Mountains are the reservoirs that serve New York City. North of the city, in Westchester and Putnam Counties, the dozen reservoirs and three controlled lakes of the Croton water system dot the landscape. A hundred miles to the northwest,...

  5. CHAPTER ONE From Croston to Catskill
    (pp. 11-36)

    On the afternoon of July 15, 1890, Mayor Hugh Grant boarded his horse-drawn carriage en route to a ceremony marking the introduction of water from the New Croton Aqueduct into New York City’s distribution system. Plans called for Grant “to appear as a fresh water Neptune” and turn a regulator, which would send a torrent of water into gatehouses at the main Central Park reservoir. City employees at an uptown gatehouse—not the mayor, whose planned whirl of the regulator was pure political symbolism—would initiate the flow of water into reservoir. Faithfully obeying the instructions of Alphonse Fteley, chief...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Up Country
    (pp. 37-67)

    Viewed from any perspective, the Catskill water system was a massive undertaking It cost approximately $180 million (more than two billion dollars in 2012), almost tripled the amount of water delivered to New York City on a daily basis, employed thousands, molded landscapes, and took more than two decades to complete. Most of those associated with the project did not take this wideangle view. For some it was merely a way to make ends meet; others viewed it as a chance to advance their careers. For thousands of European immigrants (mostly Italians) it represented their introduction to America; for African...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Drought, Delays, and the Delaware
    (pp. 68-96)

    By the late 1920s, New York City enjoyed a world-class water system. In little more than two decades, the BWS had orchestrated the construction of a massive collection and distribution network that more than tripled the city’s available water supply. But few New Yorkers seemed to notice. Construction of the Schoharie Reservoir barely registered in the public consciousness. Businessman Henry Towne, who chaired the Water Supply Committee of the Merchants’ Association, lamented, “The public hears and knows nothing about it.”¹ The water supply had come to assume its familiar position in the city’s psyche: indispensable, but largely forgotten.

    Although the...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Back to the Supreme Court
    (pp. 97-124)

    The 1950s and 1960s marked a critical transition period for the city and its water system. New York supplanted London and Paris to become the center of the Western intellectual and artistic world.¹ Mayor Robert Wagner Jr., who presided over City Hall from 1954 to 1965, expanded an array of housing and health programs, cementing Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s legacy of generous social benefits for New Yorkers.² He also supported redevelopment projects masterminded by Robert Moses that eviscerated the neighborhoods of many of these citizens. The technocratic, top-down ethos of urban renewal bore a striking resemblance to the Board of...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE The Water System and the Urban Crisis
    (pp. 125-147)

    On balmy summer evenings in the 1980s, New York City’s reservoirs—past and present—were the place to be. Five decades after it had been filled to create Central Park’s Great Lawn, the former reservoir site hosted the biggest concerts in New York’s history. In 1980, more than three hundred thousand people came to hear Elton John; two years later, an even larger crowd packed the lawn for Simon and Garfunkel’s historic reunion concert. The New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera regularly entertained tens of thousands on the lawn. With the Sheep Meadow closed for restoration, the Great Lawn,...

  10. CHAPTER SIX The Rise of Watershed Management
    (pp. 148-176)

    When he became commissioner of New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection in January 1990, Albert Appleton felt besieged. Albany and Washington had begun to scrutinize the operation of the city’s water system, and neither liked what it saw. Federal law required the city to end within two years its longtime practice of dumping sewage sludge at sea. The state threatened to prohibit new sewer connections (effectively ceasing new building construction) in lower Manhattan and part of Brooklyn if the city did not reduce the volume of sewage flowing to Brooklyn’s Newtown Creek facility, its largest wastewater treatment plant.¹ Most...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Implementing the Watershed Agreement
    (pp. 177-205)

    In the spring of 1997, a few months after signing the Memorandum of Agreement, New York finally received the prize it had desperately sought: a five-year EPA waiver exempting the city from filtering its mountain water supply.¹ Its immediate future seemingly secure, the water system no longer made front-page news. The reality was much more complex. In order to renew its waiver, New York would have to initiate a broad-based watershed protection program that required it to solicit hundreds of thousands of acres of privately owned land for purchase, upgrade sewage treatment plants, and implement new regulations. The watershed pact...

  12. Epilogue Putting Politics in Its Place
    (pp. 206-214)

    For nearly two centuries, the New York City water system has reshaped natural and built environments. The reservoirs that dominate Catskill valleys are only the most prominent manifestation of this system. Standing on a street corner in Manhattan, a perceptive observer notices other components of the water network: wooden, spinning-top shaped water tanks grace the roofs of thousands of medium-size buildings in the city, and hundreds of street-level water sampling stations allow DEP employees to test the purity of supplies throughout the five boroughs. Beneath the streets, unseen by pedestrians, a billion gallons of water a day courses through a...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 215-250)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 251-274)
  15. Index
    (pp. 275-284)