State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Catskill Watershed: a Story of Sacrifice and Cooperation

Columbia students from a class on social-ecological systems for sustainable development recently visited the Catskills watershed that included a tour of a model forest.
Guide Luca Neugebarger, right, talks to Professor Ruth DeFries and Columbia students from a class on social-ecological systems for sustainable development during a visit to a model forest in the Catskills watershed.

An undergraduate class on social-ecological systems for sustainable development recently visited the Catskills watershed to find out the story behind New York City’s water system. They filed this report.

After arriving back in the city from the Catskill Mountains, we sat down at Mel’s with new friends. The server brought a repurposed wine bottle filled with water to our table. As we poured it into cups, it brought to mind the chilly, water-soaked slopes of our hiking trail that day. We thought of the myriad trickles, streams and rivers whose waters contribute to the over 500 billion gallons stored in the 19 reservoirs that make up the New York City water supply system. The cupfuls in front of us were a small withdrawal from the 1.2 billion gallons that we use each day in the city.

Map of the New York City watershed and aqueducts. Image: NYC DEP
Map of the New York City watershed and aqueducts. Image: NYC DEP

This water has a history that is peppered with narratives of human ingenuity and strength, tragic loss and important gains. On our way to our destination of Frost Valley the day before, we had stopped at one of the reservoirs, the Neversink. A lone placard describes the history of the ghost hamlet named Bittersweet, that lies beneath this body of water. In the 1940s, to accommodate the city’s water needs, Bittersweet’s residents, who had little say in the drowning of their small town, were asked to abandon the place they called home. Another hamlet, Neversink, was moved to a different location, disrupting the lives of about 300 people. According Diane Galusha, director of communications at the Catskills Watershed Corp., 26 communities and about 5,500 people were displaced.

The days of dislocation by eminent domain are still evoked in conversations about this remarkable place, a hat-tip to those whose sacrifices make up part of the foundation of this system that is now seen as one of the greatest modern successes in ecosystem services management in the United States, if not the world. Today, the people of the Catskills are still critical actors whose voices have finally been given credence by the city.

Eminent domain is no longer used in land acquisition for the watershed. New York City owns some of the land in the area, as does the state. However, the majority of it is still privately owned, making it all the more important that residents aid in protecting the watershed. The success of the system now depends on an agreement that was reached in 1997 between the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, the federal government and area communities. This “Memorandum of Agreement” outlines a carefully thought out arrangement in which farmers, exempt from state regulation, are compensated for any voluntary improvements they make to their land to prevent animal and chemical waste from entering the water system; resident septic tanks are fixed or replaced at no cost to the homeowner; effective forestry management practices are put in place to ensure vibrant regeneration of critical forest land, and much more. Many of these programs were implemented over time, developing organically as local government and the city government worked together with residents to find mutually beneficial ways of protecting the watershed as well as the future of the community.

It has become so easy for us here in NYC to turn on the tap without realizing the hardship, unimaginable sacrifices and money that have allowed us this incredible resource at the mere flick of a finger. We returned to the downstream end of the aqueducts with a newfound appreciation of the hard work we saw first-hand and an understanding of how special our water really is.

“This is the nicest YMCA I’ve ever seen…”

Japanese Barberry, an invasive species in the Catskill region.
Japanese Barberry, an invasive species in the Catskill region.

While in the Catskills, we stayed at the Frost Valley YMCA, a year-round summer camp-style property where over 30,000 campers come annually to take advantage of the opportunities the camp provides. Although activities such as hiking, canoeing and ropes courses are a large part of its offerings, Frost Valley hosts  students, foresters, farmers and other community members who go there in search of important information regarding sustainable practices in land management that they can take back and implement in their communities.

Part of the Frost Valley property is a model forest that encompasses over 300 acres. This model was designed to demonstrate best management practices and silvicultural prescriptions for watershed protection and is divided into various plots that show how trees can be grown and  harvested  to benefit foresters while still maintaining an essential and healthy ecosystem. Visitors learn ways to minimize erosion along forest roads through the creation of culverts and broad-based dips to move water away from roads and the use of temporary skidder bridges.

Luca Neugebarger, our hiking guide through the model forest, pointed out ways in which invasive species can be problematic for the forests that support the watershed. In the Catskills, plants and animals such as the Japanese Barberry and the Asian longhorned beetle threaten to out-compete native species. The barberry can overtake understory vegetation, thus increasing the pH levels of the soil and consequently affecting its nitrogen levels. Similarly, the Asian longhorned beetle, an invasive insect thought to have arrived from China, has been known to decimate entire populations of hardwood trees. Along with the understanding of the detrimental effects that invasive species can create, lessons taught and learned in this model forest were how to recognize these potentially harmful species and in turn, mitigate their effects.

Professor Ruth DeFries and students inspect equipment at the National Atmospheric Deposition Station at Frost Valley.
Professor Ruth DeFries and students inspect equipment at the National Atmospheric Deposition Station at Frost Valley.

This forest is also home to one of the 251 acid rain collecting stations in the country, which collects and records data for the Catskills area. The data goes back to the National Atmospheric Deposition Program, a program that not only measures acid rain but also the amount of precipitation, deposition of sediment and  mercury in rainfall. As we learned in the classroom, measurement of the extent of the problem is integral to addressing it. If analysis shows that the level of acid rain needs to be mitigated, we can implement steps to work toward that goal.

A Lesson in Sharing Responsibility       
After our first hike, we were treated to two presentations on the social aspect of the Catskill reservoirs. Diane Galusha, a local historian, spoke about the history of the watershed as well as many of the contentious decisions that ultimately led to the complex system of reservoirs and aqueducts that currently supply water to NYC and a few nearby counties.

Forgoing the use of eminent domain to secure the preservation of the area, NYC instead negotiated with the local population of farmers whose land use methods undoubtedly affect the quality of the water, which in turn, affects New York City residents. The class learned about the preservation methods local farmers use to maintain and preserve the quality of the watershed, which illustrates the shared relationship between New York City residents and their rural neighbors.

Learning the shared history between the watershed communities and NYC made clear that the financial burden of clean drinking water should be borne by those who enjoy it; thus, NYC’s financial commitment to the watershed communities. Even with the financial assistance the city provides, watershed communities bear the cost of living in economically advantageous but also environmentally sensitive farming land, which often goes unnoticed by New York City residents. Having just walked through a part of the successfully preserved area, the history of social conflict and their resolutions became all the more compelling.

“I think the trip is highly linked to what we have studied in the class,” said student Tsun Wai Choi. “For example, we discussed in class the ‘wicked problem’ and the connection between social development and ecological protection. … A social-ecological wicked problem is a problem that is difficult to be solved due to its complex structure. When we try to address the wicked problem, we may create other undesirable problems.”

“In the 19th century, when NYC government tried to preserve the water source and ensure that New York City residents have access to clean water, it generated other concerns, such as regulation of agricultural land use in the Catskills area and a dramatic increase in financial expense due to eminent domain and conservation easement,” he said. “Today, Catskills reservoirs serve as a great example to allow us to understand how complex ‘a wicked system’ is. … Moreover, Catskills reservoirs serve as a successful model, showing that if we are willing to work together and solve any social-ecological problems, we can definitely succeed.”

Fred Huneke, from the Watershed Agricultural Council, speaks to students about water quality protection in the New York City Watershed.
Fred Huneke, from the Watershed Agricultural Council, speaks to students about water quality protection in the New York City Watershed.

The next presentation by Fred Huneke, from the Watershed Agricultural Council, made clear to us all the hard work that is still going into continuing this success. He discussed the numerous organizations they worked with in order to keep the watershed as safe as it could be, and informed us about the mechanisms and the successes of the many programs in place to help residents use best management practices and strategies to maintain the health of the watershed.

However, Huneke also made points about the uniqueness of the Catskills as home to this watershed, and some of the characteristics that make this setup difficult or impossible to replicate. He emphasized that though officials come from all over the world to learn about the Catskills as a model, the model cannot simply be lifted to another city and be expected to work.

This drove home the fact that every socio-ecological problem we face has unique circumstances and requires solutions that are made with consideration of those differences to be as successful as the Catskills reservoirs have been. The Catskill reservoirs is not only an example of how effective a well-designed solution to such a wicked problem can be, but also how we should go about finding that solution.

Students cross a cable bridge on the Sunday morning hike.
Students cross a cable bridge on the Sunday morning hike.
Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Debby Kassay - Technology Chairperson
8 years ago

Wonderful report on the past sacrifices and on-going challenges for those that did and still do live in the NYC Watershed areas.