Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part interview.
In his new book, Empire of Water (Cornell University Press), historian and public policy expert David Soll takes a multifaceted look at New York City’s water supply system, one of the largest, largely unfiltered municipal water supply systems on the planet. The system, which relies on mountain water flowing into upstate reservoirs, is delivered to the city through an astounding network of tunnels and aqueducts.
Soll spoke to the Gotham Gazette in an an exclusive interview last month about how that system came to be through rough-and-tumble politics, the destruction of entire towns and the flooding of thousands of acres of land.
Soll also touches upon the engineering challenges that New York City faced as it constructed the system; and the social, economic and regulatory shifts that would force New York City to re-think how it managed its water supply system in the last decades of the 20th century.
He also explores what led to the 1997 Watershed Agreement, a landmark urban-rural accord that enabled New York City to obtain permission from the federal government to avoid construction of a multi-billion dollar filtration plant. The Watershed Agreement cements a close partnership between New York City and upstate communities in the Catskills and the Delaware River Basin in order to maintain water purity through sewage management, sustainable farming practices, limits on development, and other strategies.