The New York City Water System places a high value on its watersheds, as we see in the quality of its drinking water and the variety of products that come from within it. Here, we consider the value of our watersheds for World Water Day, on March 22, with this year’s theme the “value of water.” (See the infographic map below.)
New York City’s water supply comes from three watersheds that collect water from up to 125 miles away, and offers a glimpse of effective watershed management. This water system has been called a jewel, a marvel of hydrology and engineering.
Watersheds are water collectors, or drainage basins, where water flows down slopes to the lowest point and is carried by streams and soil to water bodies and groundwater. The USGS defines it as a land area in which precipitation drains into a common outlet like a river, wetland, lake, reservoir and ocean and is bounded by a dividing ridge.
Wherever people live, they live in a watershed. The streams and rivers that wind through towns and farms, the groundwater over which people walk and drive, and the water supplies used at homes or businesses, all are contained within a watershed. Watersheds can range from the micro-scale, like a single lake, to the macro-scale that can extend for thousands of square miles, like the Colorado River Basin or the Chesapeake Bay. The cumulative network of waterways, soil moisture and underlying groundwater interweave to form watersheds of various sizes and particular characteristics. The type and intensity of activities within a watershed area impact the health of its ecosystem and the quality of its water. The more disruption and pollution there is on the land, tributaries and water bodies of a watershed, the more degraded and polluted the water is for aquatic species, wildlife and humans.
New York City Watersheds – A Liquid Jewel
Encompassing about 2,000 square miles of upstate New York forest, farms and multi-use land, the headwaters of the New York City water system actually spring from three large watersheds: the Catskill and Delaware Watersheds to the west of the Hudson River, and the Croton Watershed, to the east. The system provides some of the world’s purest drinking water to more than nine million people in New York City and its suburbs. Every day, more than one billion gallons of unfiltered drinking water is delivered by gravity from 19 reservoirs and transported via three massive aqueducts. The water eventually flows to taps atop high-rise penthouses and down to brownstone basements. It’s one of only four US city water systems to receive a waiver to supply unfiltered water from the Catskill-Delaware section, which supplies 96 percent of delivered water.
In addition to providing high-quality drinking water to the city from afar, the region embedded within the watersheds makes productive use of that same water. The diversity of activity within these boundaries remains as unique as the water supplied. The map in the infographic below (download PDF) shows just a small sample of the many items produced by people who live, work and use the water from the watershed region, especially the expansive Catskill-Delaware area.
As indicated on the map, New York state produces many farm, forest and factory products, all of which have significant operations within the New York City watersheds. For instance, New York is the second largest apple producer in the United States with hundreds of orchards selling fresh apples and related products, as well as a thriving hard cider industry. The state is also the number two US producer of dairy and maple syrup. The watersheds include everything from wood products to manufacturing within their boundaries.
No matter the item, each takes water to produce. Downstate, the same is true. The renown for New York City pizza and bagels are in part attributed to the excellent water. Whether from rainfall on crops or tap water for dough, the water needed to produce these items comes from the same location.
Shared Water, Shared Purpose
Through this bold water infrastructure project, America’s largest city is united with the rural lands and communities that lay within its watersheds. Despite the distance and differences between these places, the water is shared equitably. But that cooperation was not always the case. When New York City sought to expand its water system to the Catskills at the turn of the 20th century, the city used eminent domain to get the rights to flood whole towns that are now reservoirs, removing thousands of people from their homes in the process. Some feel resentment even today.
Eventually, New York City officials realized that to maintain a clean and bountiful water supply, they must collaborate with local residents and heed their concerns. Recognition of this essential relationship was approved in a landmark watershed agreement between the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the federal EPA and local communities. To avoid costly water treatment facilities and contend with challenges like climate change, the Catskill Watershed Corporation (CWC) was created. In turn, the CWC empowers communities to be watershed stewards who protect water and have a stake in land acquisition, economic development, locally administered protection programs, building ecosystem health, all offset with city funds. In addition, the Watershed Agricultural Council, works with farmers, foresters and other producers in the Catskill-Delaware and Croton regions to encourage water-friendly practices.
The collaborative approach to managing this common resource is what Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize for economics, called polycentric governance. Ostrom observed that these often-beneficial arrangements take place at multiple levels – local to national – with multiple stakeholders who agree to share resources because they acknowledge their collective interests. In the New York City watersheds, these adaptive methods allow people to appreciate that the rain and snow falling on mountains and forests and trickling to fill streams and reservoirs, ultimately connects them to millions of others. Those tending the nearby farm fields and those sipping water 100 miles away are in different ways sharing in a long-term future.
Written by Kai Olson-Sawyer. NYC map infographic created by GRACE staff.