State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Watershed Management Takes Sustainable Development Students to the Catskills

What do you think about when you run the tap? You’re probably going through a mental to-do list, or perhaps contemplating the weather outside. As you sip that pure, unfiltered, water, where it comes from probably does not cross your mind. Why would it? New York City residents are able to rely on a constant source of clean water. This is a nice comfort for the five boroughs, considering there are 884 million people worldwide who lack access to safe water supplies (UNICEF/WHO).

Exploring how New York City came to benefit from this luxury was what led students in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development to escape the noisy, crowded streets of New York City for a weekend in the crisp autumn air of the Catskill Mountains. Joined by Program Co-director, Ruth DeFries, and Program Coordinator, Jessica Crespo, 30 students spent a weekend at the Frost Valley YMCA located in Claryville, New York.

The students in attendance were either majors or special concentrators in Sustainable Development and many were enrolled in Professor Ruth DeFries’ course, Ecological and Social Systems for Sustainable Development (SDEV W3330). This exciting new course, offered for the first time in the Fall of 2011, focuses on environmental, social and economic perspectives required to understand and develop solutions to problems in sustainable development. Professor DeFries says, “All problems in sustainable development need to be approached from multiple perspectives on social, economic, and ecological causes and consequences,” and believes this course will bring together those perspectives. Students in the course have a specific interest in the conservation of biodiversity, payments for ecosystem services and the ecology of food production. Students were excited to further their learning outside the classroom by exploring the ecosystems services provided by the Catskills watershed for the city of New York.

During the two hour bus ride northwest of New York City to the Catskill/Delaware watershed, the students, who range from sophomores to seniors, watched a documentary to gain some background information on the area’s history. This documentary, called Deep Water, is the true story of the building of the Catskill Water System. The early 1900’s were a time of rapid expansion in New York City’s population, and in order to provide this large and growing city with fresh water, several Catskill Mountain towns were destroyed and flooded between 1915-1926.

New York City currently receives 90% of its water from six reservoirs in the Catskill Mountains. That is about 1.0 billion gallons of safe drinking water daily just to the eight million residents, tourists and commuters who visit New York City throughout the year. Another 120 million gallons a day go out to the one million residents in Westchester, Putnam, Ulster and Orange counties. In all, about nine million people benefit from this pure, high-quality, natural resource. Program Co-Director, Ruth DeFries says, “There’s no way to better appreciate the connection between New Yorkers and the Catskills than to take a hike through the woods and talk to the people on the frontline of protecting the watershed.”

Sustainable Development program students were able to learn about the various programs that the Catskill Watershed Corporation (CWC) runs to ensure help for the Watershed residents, such as storm water programs that pay for runoff controls, residential septic system repair, replacement and maintenance, as well as funding stream corridor protection efforts.  Students were very interested in the history of the region and the projects underway. “I was impressed at how intelligent and engaged the students are.  The Catskills watershed field trip has been the best thing I’ve done at Columbia University so far,” shared GS student, John Squires.

Students got a first-hand look at forestry management planning at the Frost Valley YMCA, which is home to one of three model forest sites in the Catskill/Delaware watershed.  These model forests provide living classrooms on erosion-control techniques, sustainable timer harvesting, current research and invasive species that threaten the forest. They also learned about the Watershed Agricultural Council (WAC), which aims to support clean water initiatives as well as economic initiatives to bring farm and wood products to markets and help Catskill producers improve their profitability through Pure Catskills brand which encourage consumers to buy locally.

This rare and wonderful learning experience was brought to these students by Columbia University’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development which is an interdisciplinary program that addresses sustainable development through an understanding of the interaction between natural sciences and social systems, offered through the Earth Institute in partnership with Columbia College and the School of General Studies.

Participating departments and schools of the Sustainable Development Major and Concentration include the Department of Earth and Environmental Biology; the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering; the School of International and Public Affairs and the Mailman School of Public Health. The Program in Sustainable Development allows students to gain the necessary skills they need to address the fundamental issues of sustainability. Whether it be navigating through complex public health situations or using analytical skills to develop solutions to water management problems, the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development enables students to look at progress in human well-being without causing harm to our environmental and the planet. The program benefits from the groundbreaking work of the faculty and researchers at the Earth Institute who collaborate with students in addressing fundamental sustainable development issues.

This field trip was one of three trips off campus had by Sustainable Development program students in the 2011 fall semester. To learn more about the program, or for more information about upcoming events, please visit our website or contact Jessica Crespo at

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