Trip to the Catskills Teaches Students About NYC's Water Supply

by Charlotte Munson, Stephanie Main and Lauren Ritchie |November 22, 2019

By Charlotte Munson, Stephanie Main and Lauren Ritchie

Students in Professor Ruth Defries’s Ecological and Social Systems for Sustainable Development class had the opportunity to take a break from midterms and trade in New York City for the idyllic Catskills and a weekend of informative talks. The trip gave us some incredible insight into the New York City’s water system, and the public and private partnerships necessary to keep providing safe, clean drinking water to all New Yorkers.

The New York Department of Environmental Protection is proud of its water quality and efficient delivery system, but we learned that this was not always the case. As the population grew at the turn of the 20th century, New York City had to look outside of its own boundaries to cover their shortage. To incentivize Catskills residents to maintain clean water systems that would not require costly filtration, the city signed a Memorandum of Agreement, or MOA, outlining the cooperation between the city and the watershed, and ultimately paying the watershed a tax of around $179 million.

We began our trip to the Frost Valley YMCA bright and early at 7:30am on October 23. After a three-hour bus ride and a swift check-in, we went straight into presentations from two Catskills Watershed representatives: Fred Huneke of the Watershed Agricultural Council, and Jason Merwin from the Catskill Watershed Corporation. We followed these informative talks with a tour of the nearby Model Forest, during which we got to explore the Catskills in all of its beauty and learn more about some of the issues the area is experiencing from climate change. It was truly a great experience and we all appreciated the chance to get outside the classroom for some hands-on learning. The evening ended with a dinner and an array of fun-filled activities put on by the Frost Valley YMCA before a good night’s rest for the packed day to follow.

On Sunday, October 24, despite the rainy weather conditions, we departed for the Catskills Visitor Center and once there, heard a presentation from Jeff Senterman, executive director of the center. We had the chance to climb one of the fire towers for some breathtaking, although a bit damp, views of the Catskills. Our final stop was an outside talk at the Ashokan Reservoir by Adam Bosch, director of Public Affairs for the NYC Department of Environmental Protection. He shared novel insight into how the reservoirs operate to provide clean drinking water to city dwellers every day.

The Catskills watershed provides 90 percent of the water required by New York City. There are five major reservoirs — Neversink, Rondout, Pepacton, Schoharie, and the Ashokan, where we met Bosch. The Ashokan specifically is a dual system reservoir where the water from upstream flows into the west side first. Once all the sediment has sifted down to the bottom and the water column is clear, it is then transferred into the east section of the system, where it flows down to the city by gravity. The water is not filtered at all until it reaches the city, where it undergoes UV filtration to kill bacteria. Bosch told us that monitoring of the water in the reservoirs is conducted 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He said that their scientists collect about 2,000-3,000 individual data samples in order to keep the water at the highest quality.

The success of the Catskills model to avoid costly water treatment has many factors, but the one that stood out was arguably the cooperative element between the public and private sectors. Policy and economic resources from New York City ensure that city dwellers get the water they need, while those in the Catskills gained jobs and economic resources. Our trip taught us that it is the cooperation between so many different stakeholders that makes the Catskills model stand out worldwide.

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