It’s Thanksgiving in New York. Approaching five hundred years ago, the first historically-documented European passed through the waters of what is now known as New York Bay and encountered the region’s Lenape inhabitants. Approaching four hundred years ago, the first permanent European settlement was established in what is today New York City. New York was among the earliest significant outposts of the European settler-colonial project in North America, and yet our American History textbooks are largely silent on the early history of New York City (perhaps owing to its Dutch roots) and the genocidal roots it has in common with the colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth. Only in studying the start of the Revolution War do most schoolchildren in the US first begin to read about the City that for more than two centuries has been at the heart of US power and imperialism, and for approaching one century has been the/a center of the global order which is now trembling.
Three years ago, in confronting a manifestation of that order – the Dakota Access Pipeline – water protectors at Standing Rock injected the phrase that gives this post its title into global consciousness. Water has been central to the history of New York City: its preternaturally excellent natural harbor and strategic location at the heart of the colonial Atlantic Seaboard positioned New York to emerge as first a mercantile and commercial and then financial hub; the vision (and perhaps greed) of its elites in the early 19th century allowed New York to capitalize upon (and drive) the westward thrust of US imperialism through the construction of the Erie Canal and the cementing – by capture of Great Lakes trade on top of that of much of New England – of New York’s premier position among North American cities; even the consolidation of its five boroughs, in 1898, into one vast megacity had to do with water (as well as the growth of rapidly burgeoning Chicago), though in that case, with its bridging and tis lack, for, although New York is blessed in many ways – and before the devastation of colonization and industrialization, was evidently blessed much more with a natural wealth that was, to the first European visitors, truly staggering – as the City expanded, polluted, and despoiled, it ran up consistently against limitations in the availability of potable water.
Beset again and again by outbreaks of cholera and other water-borne diseases (no coincidence that the purview of New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) encompasses both Drinking Water and Wastewater), only in 1842, with the opening of the first Croton Aqueduct, did the City, at last, secure a steady source of clean drinking water; commentators at the time believed it would be generations before the City required a greater supply, and yet such was New York’s greed for (and profligacy with) water that within a few decades, the City was once again pushing up against the limits of its water supply.
Fast forward to today, and the vast majority of New Yorkers give basically no thought to the source, security, or infrastructure underlying the availability of their water, and yet New York’s water system is one of City’s most remarkable infrastructural accomplishments (and perhaps one of the world’s). To quote from the NYC DEP‘s own New York City 2018 Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report:
The New York City Water Supply System provides approximately one billion gallons of safe drinking water daily to more than 8.6 million residents of New York City, and to the millions of tourists and commuters who visit the City throughout the year. The water supply system also provides about 105 million gallons a day to approximately one million people living in the counties of Westchester, Putnam, Orange, and Ulster. In all, the New York City Water Supply System provides nearly half the population of New York State with high-quality drinking water.
New York City gets its drinking water from 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes spread across a nearly 2,000-square-mile watershed. The watershed is not located in New York City, but rather upstate, in portions of the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains that are as far as 125 miles north of the City. The New York City Water Supply System… consists of three individual water supplies called the Catskill/Delaware supply… the Croton supply… and a groundwater supply in southeastern Queens… [from which water] has not been delivered to customers in many years.
In 2018, New York City received a blend of drinking water from the Catskill/Delaware and Croton supplies. The Catskill/Delaware supply provided approximately 94 percent of the water, and approximately six percent was supplied by Croton.
The Report, which I encourage New Yorkers to read in its entirety, includes basic information (for example, about treatment of New York City’s water supply; see image below for more details) and remarkable facts (for example, that the 85-mile-long Delaware Aqueduct – currently undergoing repairs which themselves reflect the technical sophistication and capacity of the system and those maintaining it – is the longest continuous tunnel in the world). Readers who are interested in system maintenance, water quality testing, watershed preservation, and water conservation efforts will find the report an accessible and concise summary, and those in New York and looking to learn more might also enjoy paying a visit to the Queens Museum which has a fascinating, if dated, topographic map showing the extent of the City’s water supply (along with the famous Panorama of the City of New York, which offers – in view of rising sea levels and climate crisis-driven extreme weather – a sobering perspective on New York’s future relationship with the bodies of water which have defined it).
Given that my own time has been limited this fall, I’ll leave it at that – more of an invitation to those who might be interested to dig deeper than an attempt at (or pretense of) offering anything more comprehensive. For readers looking to go deeper, Ted Steinberg’s Gotham Unbound and the incomparable Gotham (by Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace) and Greater Gotham (by Wallace alone) offer treasure troves of historical perspective on their common theme (that is, Gotham, the origin of which name may have something to do with goats), while Nick Estes recent Our History is the Future offers both further insights regarding the ongoing struggle at Standing Rock and a necessary corrective to (even excellent) histories which fail to center indigenous experiences in making sense of how we came to be where we are.
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