Where Public Tap Water Begets Wilderness


New York City and Boston’s watershed management programs preserve rural landscapes while providing clean water to urban areas

By Daniel Moss

Environmental disasters that ooze from man’s follies make headlines. But what about the environmental serendipities from careful planning? The unexpected habitats where souls and eagles soar from a protected swamp? Some of those wild places can be found by following the water back from your faucet to its source.

Before New York and Boston were baseball competitors, they shared a certain wisdom about the design of their drinking water supplies. To Boston’s west sits the Quabbin and Wachusetts reservoirs. North of New York City stretches that great metropolis’ water sources — the Croton and Catskill-Delaware watersheds. Gravity is a good friend to these port cities. Both receive their water, largely unfiltered and un-pumped, from protected watersheds in the hills.

Back in the nineteenth century, stagnant, foul water and a spate of dysentery could lose you an election. Angry communities clamoring for water made nasty headlines and pushed politicians to direct engineers and urban planners to find safe water sources. With populations booming in the 1800s, Boston and New York looked to their hinterlands to quench their growing thirst.

Development of rural water sources wasn’t a walk in the park. Rural communities don’t tend to be enamored with ceding control of their natural resources to satisfy insatiable urban areas on a seemingly never-ending trajectory of expansion and encroachment. New York and Boston’s rural neighbors were no exception. Many of these communities were displaced and flooded to create reservoirs. Fences were erected to keep people out of protected watersheds.

Leaving aside that ill will for a moment, the immediate consequence of tapping distant source water was a steady, healthy flow to the cities, far from urban contaminants. Slower to emerge, were expanses of wilderness, —> Read More