By Anna Lehr Mueser
PhD candidate in the History and Sociology of Science
University of Pennsylvania
Between 1907 and 1965, New York City acquired a vast amount of land in the Catskill Mountains and constructed one of the United States’ largest unfiltered surface water supply systems. In the process of building the six reservoirs in this region, more than two dozen towns, villages, and hamlets across five counties were relocated or eliminated. Their residents were forced to move; their buildings were either disassembled and moved or burned to the ground. Today, more than one hundred years after this process began, this system provides 90% of New York City’s water.1
In my research, I focus on how people in the region have lived and made sense of their lives within the highly regulated landscape of New York City’s water supply lands, over the past half-century since the system was built. To understand how people have lived with this system, I combine ethnographic interviews, primarily with farmers, and archival research. With the support of the Water Center at Penn I interviewed dozens of people, mostly farmers, in the watershed.
On rainy days when hay cannot be cut, I sat at kitchen tables and listened to stories about traveling back and forth from a local college to milk the cows at home, about how to keep track of cow breeding, and about how a woman stayed with her home in one of the flooded valleys until the bulldozers came to her door.2 On sunny days I rode around on tractor fenders or walked along streams where farmers pointed out how much soil has been carried down river to the reservoir or what sort of riparian buffer plantings have been working on their farm. On all sorts of days, I’d pore over the meeting notes of organizations that work with people in the watershed and I examined protest posters and correspondence regarding changing regulations.
This combination of archival sources and conversations has shown me a striking truth about relationships in the New York City Watershed: the collaborative work of maintaining water quality for a city more than a hundred miles away requires the maintenance of relationships. There is necessary work that goes into building and supporting individual relationships as well as institutional ones. This work includes negotiating and maintaining social relationships between individuals and among an array of agencies and organizations with jurisdiction over the region’s environment. Part of that work has to be mediating and communicating across very different ways of seeing the world and solving problems. Maintaining social relationships is essential to protecting the quality of this watershed.
Although residents who lost homes and businesses were compensated by New York City, a vein of lingering pain runs through these communities. This pain is sustained by the memories of individuals and families who were displaced, a strong tradition of pride in local history and connections, and the challenges of ongoing life with the regulations required to keep the water clean enough for New York City.
For many, these memories and resentments resurfaced in the 1990s when a new, more stringent set of water quality regulations were implemented. Alongside these regulations, two organizations were founded to serve communities in the watershed: the Catskill Watershed Corporation which works with individuals and municipalities, and the Watershed Agricultural Council which works with farmers and foresters.3 Because the region around the largest of New York City’s reservoirs has been agricultural for the last century, and remains so today, working with farmers to enable them to survive economically while also keeping the water supply clean is crucial.
In interviews with farmers this past summer, erosion emerged as a serious issue. In Delaware County many farms are on hilltops or the sides of mountains, meaning the thin layer of topsoil on pasture and crop fields is liable to slowly wash away, revealing more and more rocks which need to be hand-picked from the fields before equipment can run on them.4 Water moving from farms is also a major source of concern for New York City’s watershed. Such water may carry parasites from livestock manure, it may bring pesticides and fertilizers into the reservoirs, and it adds silt to the reservoirs, harming water quality along the way. To protect water quality, the Agriculture Council implements practices to minimize runoff from farms.5 These include keeping livestock out of streams, planting buffers along creeks, and limiting manure spreading on the fields. While both farmers and watershed advocates are concerned with the same physical process, they approach it differently.
As one farmer put it, “I don’t want a farm … in the Cannonsville Reservoir. I want it here.”6 Another farmer emphasized that his farm, on which his family had run a dairy for over a century, had lost portions of fields to streams.7 Because of water quality regulations, however, some of the strategies that farmers would like to implement to reduce erosion from their fields are not permitted.
Where the Council, and its partner agencies including the Soil and Water Conservation District, the Cornell Cooperative Extension, the New York State Department of Conservation, and the USDA Conservation Resource Enhancement Program, will suggest fencing streams and planting buffers, several of the farmers I spoke with preferred to place rocks at the turns in the stream or re-route streams entirely. In one case a farmer pointed across their family’s fields, demonstrating where a creek had been moved in the late nineteenth century to make for a better field. A member of the next generation of farmers in this family told me the stream is in constant need of repair to prevent its moving laterally across the field. For this family, fixing the stream would mean concrete or rock piles at the bends in the course, something which is not allowed under the current regulations.8 In another place, a farmer explained that he uses the techniques provided by the varied agencies which work with farmers: he tills as little as possible, keeps cover crops on the ground, leaves good-sized buffers of vegetation along streambanks. Even so, he comments that it’s not enough to protect his fields from the river.9
What the example of stream management for erosion reveals is that living within the constraints and affordances of New York City’s water supply region entails mediation between different understandings of problems and solutions. For these farmers, the problem is the loss of fertile topsoil. For the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the problem is increased turbidity in the water and fertilizers and manure carried with the soil. For the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, however, the problem is silty water threatening trout populations. Each favors the solutions that solve their particular problem and when these clash, it is often agencies with City or state authority behind them that end up with the solution of their choice. The quality of New York City’s water and the viability of agrarian livelihoods in the watershed both depend on the ongoing work of mediating among these differences.
Anna Lehr Mueser is a PhD candidate in the History and Sociology of Science. Her research explores collective memory and ongoing life within technologically transformed landscapes. In addition to her studies and research, Anna is a bookbinder and letterpress printer, serving on the board of The Soapbox, a West Philadelphia-based community arts non-profit. Anna is a 2021 recipient of the Water Center’s student research support grant.
1 Neversink Reservoir Recreational Boating Informational Kiosk
2 Personal interviews 003-FD April 29, 2021; 011-FD June 21, 2021; 012-FD June 21, 2021
3 “New York City Watershed Memorandum of Agreement,” 1997; David Soll, Empire of Water: An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), See chapter 7.
4 Personal interviews 005-FD May 6, 2021; 013-FD June 21, 2021; 019-FD June 24, 2021; 024-FD August 13, 2021; 028-FD August 17, 2021
5 Watershed Agricultural Council, meeting minutes 1992-1996.
6 Personal interview 014-FD June 22, 2021
7 Personal interview 018-FD June 23, 2021
8 Personal interviews 027-FD August 17, 2021; 028-FD August 17, 2021
9 Personal interview 024-FD August 13, 2021