New York City has one of the largest water-delivery systems in the world. It needs to be, for it must serve more than 8 million people a day. Much of the fresh water New York City uses comes from the Catskill Mountains, specifically an area in Ulster County that is about 73 miles north of the city.
This didn’t just happen. There is an engrossing story behind the bringing of water to the largest city in North America–water that is some of the best quality in the country. The story may not equal Chinatown, but it has some twists and turns.
After it became clear a new source was needed, New York City began using the Catskills for its water early in the 20th century. As state-owned Forest Preserve land, the Catskills lands could not be sold under the state constitution.
An amendment allowed up to 3 percent of the total Forest Preserve land to be vacated and flooded, and that created the reservoirs to supply water for the city.
The New York State legislature created the New York City Board of Water Supply in 1905, which arranged for the acquisition of lands suitable for building of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts in the Catskill Mountains. The board began construction on the Ashokan Reservoir in 1907 and finished in 1915. Over 500 homes, shops, churches, and schools of the 12 resident communities in the area due to be flooded by the waters of Esopus Creek were abandoned or moved, along with a logging operation, a section of railroad line, and thousands of acres of farmland.
The residents challenged, to no avail, the eminent-domain rule that allowed the state to confiscate the land; it was 1940 before the last case was settled. When the dam was completed and ready to be put into use, giant steam whistles blew for one hour, signaling anyone still in the valley to evacuate.
Several of the communities were reconstructed nearby. West Shokan, Olivebridge, Ashokan, and Shokan still stand along the banks of the reservoir. Over 12 miles of the Ulster and Delaware Railroad was moved, and 32 cemeteries were relocated. Historical markers along Routes 28 and 28A commemorate the former towns of Boiceville, Olive City, and West Hurly. During low-water levels, parts of the tops of the abandoned buildings can be seen peeking out of the water.
The Olive Bridge dam was constructed mainly by local laborers using Rosendale cement, the world’s strongest at the time. The men lived in labor camps, and fights would often break out, so a police force was established to keep the peace. After completion of the reservoir, the force transformed into the New York City Department of Environmental Protection Police (NYCDEP).
The reservoir was built as two basins separated by a concrete dividing weir used to control the water flow. At full capacity, it holds 122.9 billion gallons of water. Recreational activities on the Ashokan Reservoir are restricted to fishing only with a boat without a motor; no gasoline-powered craft are allowed to make sure there is no pollution, and fishing licences are strictly controlled. Evergreen trees planted when the dam was built control erosion along the banks.
Another reservoir in the Catskills is 27 miles north of the Ashokan. The Schoharie Reservoir’s water flows into the Ashokan through the Shandaken Tunnel and Esopus Creek. The watershed area is just over 300 square miles in Greene County. With a shoreline of 14.8 miles and a length of 4 miles, it is a popular fishing spot. The state encourages fishing by annually stocking approximately 1,500 to 2,000 brown trout about eight inches in length and 20,000 walleye one to two inches in length As with the Ashokan, no gasoline motors are permitted.
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Water from the Schoharie Reservoir moves to New York City through the Shandaken Tunnel and into Esopus Creek. From the Esopus, it flows into the Ashokan Reservoir and enters the Catskill Aqueduct to Kensico Reservoir, and then on to New York City. There, gravity supplies the power to push the water through, rather than the pumps most cities use.
Writer: Donnapa Patterson