Environmental News: Firsthand
Remember the thrill, at the climax of The Miracle Worker, when Helen Keller grasps her first word: water? As the liquid flows from a pump over her hands, a light suddenly goes on in her mind, and she makes the connection between the bewildering sign language she has been learning and the wetness running through her fingers.
I had a similar, if less momentous, moment of illumination over water last fall. My husband, Peter, and I had driven up to the Catskills from Manhattan, two hours away, for a whirlwind tour of its woodlands, mountains and streams as guests of The Catskill Center, a local conservation and sustainable development organization. Our guides were Aaron Bennett and Chris Olney, directors of education and conservation, respectively, who know the natural landscape of the Catskills as intimately as I know the streets of New York.
I had come to experience the connection between New York City and its watershed, and the first stop we made was the Ashokan Reservoir, one of six reservoirs in the Delaware-Catskill system that provide New York City with ninety percent of its water supply. From here, I was told, the water travels via the Catskill Aqueduct some ninety miles to the city. It was hard to visualize. The water in the reservoir, which looked much like a natural lake, appeared far too placid to be moving anywhere. And what did a modern-day aqueduct look like anyway?
Standing in that serene and pastoral setting, I felt as removed from the city as I did from the Catskills when at home. But the connection between the two grew clearer over the next two days. Markers on the road for towns that had been destroyed (and, in some cases, relocated) to make room for the reservoir became the departure point for a history lesson on what it took to get the reservoir built a hundred years ago. I also saw a segment of the aqueduct -- underground but clearly visible as a hump in the land. And on one of our hikes, I drank some Catskill water at its source -- from a makeshift water fountain in the woods that consisted of nothing more than a pipe projecting from the rocky face of the hillside.
Then came my Aha! experience.
We were following in our car behind Tom Alworth, The Catskill Center's executive director, when suddenly he pulled over, got out and motioned for us to do likewise. First, he pointed out the Shandaken Tunnel on our right, which brings water through the mountains from the system's northernmost reservoir, the Schoharie, eighteen miles away, to a little canal running under the road. Then, we crossed the road to see the canal spilling its water into the Esopus Creek, which travels eleven miles from there to the Ashokan. As we watched the streams of water merge and race past, Tom said, "All that water's going to you."
Finally, I got it.
I could see, and even feel, that this was where the lifeblood of my city came from, and appreciate the gift of the people of the area in sharing their bounty with us.
I was terribly excited -- except for one thing. The water flowing in from the canal was brown and turbid, muddying the sparkling water of the Esopus. I remembered an article I'd read a couple of months earlier about this problem, which wasn't one of chemical pollution, but clay and other particles that were routinely washing into the water after storms. Because of it, the city, which currently has the largest unfiltered water system in the United States, may be forced to build a multi-billion-dollar filtration system in the next few years. The problem may yet be solved by constructing a new water intake system at the Schoharie, but the larger meaning to me was clear and even visceral: What runs off from the land in the Catskills will eventually end up in my glass in New York.
Another thing I came to understand deeply that day was how the city has gotten away without filtration for as long as it has. A large portion of the watershed overlaps with the 700,000-acre Catskill Park, a patchwork of private and public lands, including the Forest Preserve, which is protected as "forever wild" by the New York State Constitution. As a result of this far-sighted arrangement, development in the region has been contained, and with it, erosion and chemical runoff into the waterways.
What a blessing -- and not just because it keeps our drinking water clean, but also because it preserves, just a hundred miles from the city, an honest-to-goodness wilderness.
(3/24/11 update: Despite these protections, the Catskills are now threatened by gas drilling that could contaminate drinking water both locally and in New York City, cause harmful air pollution, create health risks for people and animals living in the region and of course tear up the glorious landscape.)
For animals, including black bears, bobcats, coyotes, bald eagles and rare migratory birds like Bicknell's Thrush, the Catskills provide much-needed habitat; for people, hundreds of miles of hiking trails, famously good fly-fishing, skiing, rock-climbing, canoeing and other recreation in a beautiful half-wild, half-rural landscape -- the same that inspired the Hudson River School painters more than a century ago.
If you have a chance to go sometime, be sure to grab it. Whether your dream of a perfect day is tubing down a river, climbing a 4,000-foot peak or meandering through a woodsy setting as magical as Lothlorien, I guarantee you'll find reason to say, "Eureka, I found it!"
And give the Catskills -- or whatever your watershed is -- a thought now and again when you turn on your tap. You may not live on the land where your water originates, but you do live off it. Care for it as if it were yours -- because it is.
Sheryl Eisenberg, a web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC, writes This Green Life, NRDC's monthly green living column. With her firm, Mixit Productions, she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.
|© 2007 Natural Resources Defense Council|
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Welcome to Firsthand, an occasional series of personal reflections on the places, creatures and world that NRDC works to protect. Firsthand is automatically sent to all NRDC Members and activists for whom we have email addresses. If you do not already receive it and would like to, please join us by taking action at www.nrdc.org.