The Fight for Water Access: Liquid Assets and New York City’s Watershed
In 1997, the City of New York passed its watershed regulations with the New York City Watershed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), bartered between municipal officials and residents and community leaders upstate in the Catskills and Delaware County, 80-125 miles north. The MOA and associated Filtration Avoidance Determination (FAD) granted the City the ability to purchase 355,000 acres of land from willing sellers for full market value in the watershed and allowed it to avoid building an expensive facility to filter its Catskill-Delaware Water Supply as long as it proved it could keep this surface supply clean through land acquisition, regulations and city-funded, locally-administered environmental protection programs. Upstate communities won a ban on property condemnation and received financial compensation for the extra costs of adhering to the new regulations, including those that prohibited septic tanks, fuel tanks, and impervious surfaces within 100 feet of water. They were also allocated funds for environmentally-minded economic development, which was to be run and developed by the new Catskill Watershed Corporation.
Writer, water access advocate, and founder of the Historical Society of Middletown, NY, Diane Galusha wrote the book on New York City’s watershed, Liquid Assets: A History of New York City’s Water System, after years of working closely with/in affected communities. Chloe Kellner speaks with Galusha about her time working with the Catskill Watershed Corporation and the landmark MOA.
Chloe Kellner: What got you involved with the watershed and what brought you to write a book on its complex histories?
Diane Galusha: My training was in journalism, and I was the editor of the Catskill Mountain News during the 1990s when the New York City Watershed Memorandum of Agreement was being negotiated. I found that I didn’t have enough background or understanding of the whole issue because, really, to understand what was going on I had to have some understanding of the history. So, I started looking into the history and found that there had not been a comprehensive history written about the NYC water system, the communities that were affected by the reservoirs, and NYC’s need for water, so I decided to write one.
Diane Galusha in Liquid Assets on NYC’s use of eminent domain for the building of the Croton system in the 1830s:
“The project was built on lands acquired from owners who, not surprisingly, sometimes balked at the city’s authority to condemn their property. According to Croton Aqueduct Commission reports from the period, 534 acres were taken from 36 property owners who were paid $85,785 for land needed for the reservoir. Another 292 acres were purchased along the aqueduct line from owners who got a total of $165,000, an average of $571 per acre.”
CK: Can you describe some of the frustrations that Catskills residents had with the Memorandum of Agreement, and what you think helped representatives from both NYC and upstate come to an agreement?
DG: The history was the biggest issue. The city had basically come to the Catskills, and before that to Westchester and Putnam counties, and basically claimed (by eminent domain) the territory to build reservoirs for the millions of people who live a long way away. People had already given up a lot. Under eminent domain you must leave, and then you argue for what you believe the property is worth. That was another sore point because a lot of people felt they hadn’t gotten the money that their property and communities deserved.
In 1905, Mayor McClellan appointed New York City’s first Board of Water Supply. The BWS submitted a plan to incorporate the water of the Catskill region into the City’s supply.
Diane Galusha in Liquid Assets:
“[A.T.] Clearwater [a Kingston attorney who represented opponents to the proposed BWS plan], in front of an audience of 500 spectators at the first hearing on November 27, 1905… argued that Chapter 724 of the Laws of 1905 was unconstitutional in part because it deprives people of property without due process of law, and takes private property for public use without just compensation.” (pp. 95)
“‘Some of the objections assumed that the city would immediately, on the approval of its plan, proceed to devastate the whole Catskill mountain region, that it would seize buildings, tear them down on ten days notice to the owners and turn them out without a roof to shelter them,’ said [George Sterling, assistant to the corporation counsel representing the City]. ‘A moment’s consideration will convince anyone that this cannot be the case… No lands can be flooded until a dam has been constructed, no water can be diverted until an aqueduct has been built.’ But he pointed out, the city justifiably retained power to summarily seize and destroy buildings in ‘extraordinary’ cases to prevent unreasonable delay of the monumental project ‘by one or two individuals who are the owners of buildings worth but a few dollars’.” (pp. 95-96)
DG: So there was that history of NYC making an incursion into the Catskills, and here they were coming back again. This time they were saying, people can’t do anything within 100 ft of the watercourse, and we’re going to impose all sorts of draconian regulations on people who live in the watershed in order to meet our federal mandates for unfiltered water supplies. That was the crux of it: The use of eminent domain again, which is what the city really wanted to do, to keep its water clean. If there were bad actors, their intent was to not take eminent domain off the table. They would acquire land as needed using fair market value, but if they felt they needed a piece of land to keep the water clean, they would take it. Well that just raised the hackles of the negotiators and the community leaders here and in the Catskills and in East-of-Hudson, and that really was the line in the sand. The coalition of watershed towns, which was negotiating for the West-of-Hudson watershed communities, basically threatened legal actions. They had a law firm, and they were going to sue the city if they attempted to include that in their regulatory framework. So that came down to the wire, and brought all the parties into the same room to negotiate the agreement.
CK: In more recent history, what do you think are some of the more overlooked but important features of the watershed that people should be aware of?
DG: What’s happening today and what the city has been developing over the past two years is really intriguing. The Delaware Aqueduct is leaking, so they are building and reconnecting the Delaware Aqueduct under the Hudson River to avoid that leaking area. That’s a project that’s been going on for years. They’ve reconstructed the entire Gilboa Dam, which was expedited by the flood of 2005, 2006, and 2011. They’ve had to anchor it to bedrock and do all kinds of emergency safety measures. They’re currently working up there to build a lower level outlet to create a tunnel that would take the water and empty it completely into the Schoharie Creek [southwest of Albany]. So there’s a lot of NYC water infrastructure that is underground and unseen. What happens out of sight from consumers and stewards is really remarkable. They’re always trying to figure out how they’re going to provide water 50 years from now. The water system developed because the city had a contemporary need for water but also because it was clear that the city was going to keep growing and always need more and more. It took planning, foresight, and a lot of money that would create a system that would serve people today and in 50 years. I think the need to look down the road escapes people sometimes, because no one knows what’s coming. Who 50 years ago was expecting a climate crisis where the water supply and waste water disposal were going to be majorly problematic? There’s a whole division in the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that was established some years ago to deal strictly with climate change and sustainability.
CK: Related to climate change, I understand that, per capita, watershed users are now using about 100 gallons per day less than 60 years ago. But with the population continuing to grow and climate change, that decrease is likely not enough. Aside from fixing the massive tunnel leaks, what other strategies do you think will be more effective in continuing to conserve the water supply?
DG: They’ve been repairing leaks for forever. Metering [or measuring water use] is a huge thing. Now they have universal metering, and I think when it hits people in their pocketbook they’ll use less water. But there’s a lot of people in the city who rent, and they don’t always get that their rent includes water and waste water disposal, which their landlords have to pay. That’s a really sensitive issue. What do you do when people don’t pay their water bills?
They could also conserve water through education. When I was working for the Catskill Watershed Corporation, I managed an education grant program in which we gave grants to NYC and upstate schools to better understand the environmental, ecological, and social issues related to the NYC water supply. With education you have to start young so people really understand and appreciate every drop of water and won’t waste it. Waste in my opinion is criminal considering how many sacrifices went into providing NYC with clean water. The DEP has been really mindful of that in order to save money and save water so they don’t have to look for more water five years from now. If they can save it they don’t have to capture another source. But they also recognize that it’s hot in the summer, so they have these sprinkler sites around the city that are timed and don’t run continuously. They’ve been trying to replace people’s fixtures with low flow toilets, showerheads, and faucets. All of that has had a huge impact on how much water is saved. I think they’re using a third less water than in the ‘80s, it’s pretty incredible. I think their efforts are doing well but not enough people are cognizant of how much they use.
CK: Have the signatories of the Memorandum of Agreement lived up to their promises?
DG: Yes, that agreement laid a new foundation for a relationship between the people who provide the water, the people who drink it, and the environmental groups that are concerned about environmental quality. So everyone had a stake in making this work. To have it blow up in everyone’s faces would have just meant more money in the pockets of lawyers. I think everyone worked hard to make their own part work for everyone else (not that there weren’t any bumps in the road). This created a forum for people to talk to one another and recognize one another’s needs and capabilities and what the stressors are for everyone. The city has done a lot, they’re slower than a lot of people would like, but they’ve done a lot to smooth things over for future generations. People who lived through the taking of the reservoirs are fading from the scene, not that their descendants or anyone is forgetting anything, but it is less raw. I think all the coalitions, councils, and communities have really stepped up to keep the water clean and the city has kept their promise to keep up the funding. Of course not everyone is happy but the agreement is doing everything it was supposed to – protect NYC’s water and preserve the Catskill communities that don’t get access to that water.
DIANE GALUSHA is a former journalist with a passion for history. She was the editor of the Catskill Mountain News in Margaretville, NY from 1989 to 1996, when the NYC Watershed Memorandum of Agreement was being negotiated by federal, state, city, environmental and watershed representatives. She recently retired after 21 years as communications director and education coordinator for the Catskill Watershed Corporation.
The author of several books of local and regional history including Liquid Assets, The Story of New York City’s Water System (1999, Purple Mountain Press), Diane is the founding president of the Historical Society of the Town of Middletown, Delaware County, NY.
CHLOE KELLNER is a junior at Vassar College from New York City. She is majoring in environmental studies and geography, with concentrations in urban studies and biology. Chloe is interested in urban design and planning, as well as improving food systems. In her free time, she plays piano and harp and enjoys spending time with family and friends.