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Muddy Waters: Does New York City Have a Watershed Problem?

A century-old system of reservoirs, aqueducts and tunnels in the Catskills provides clean water to millions in New York City, some say at the expense of local communities.

Children playing in the mud at the edge of a body of water.
Photos by David Kidd
A half-dozen novice kayakers are about to paddle away from the village beach in Saugerties, N.Y. But before they leave, they must first listen to instructions from Gail Porter, who has been renting out boats on the Esopus Creek for seven years. Normally she would tell them they can get out of their boats at one of the sandbars upstream, but not today. “I think they’re more like mud bars right now,” she says. The out-of-town tourists, most of them from New York City, don’t seem to mind that the water is the color of a Hershey bar.

Nearby, a mother watches her two young children play at the water’s edge. The town didn’t bring in any sand this year, so the kids make do, scooping up mud with their shovels and pails. But they won’t be swimming today. “I have not seen the water this brown,” says the mom. “It’s been a battle all summer, just with how not clear the creek has been.”

With no one to watch over, a teenage lifeguard occupies herself with a laptop. “It’s because of the storm that just came through,” she says. “It clears up all the time.” She’s right. Occasional turbidity — or clouding of the water — has always been a problem in the Esopus Creek, the result of fine clay particles that become suspended in the water after a storm. To demonstrate the concept, Gail sticks a foot in the water and swishes it around. “See how it doesn’t settle?”

Typically, the creek clears in a matter of days. The bigger problem is when the water turns brown because of actions taken 20 miles upstream at the Ashokan Reservoir.

A Growing Demand for Water


As the 19th century came to a close, New York City was rapidly outgrowing its supply of fresh water. By 1905, city planners had identified the Catskill Mountains region as an ideal location for a new reservoir system. Using eminent domain, 2,000 residents along the Esopus Creek were displaced before four hamlets were flooded and another eight relocated. Completed in 1915, the Ashokan Reservoir and the system of tunnels and aqueducts that deliver its water to New York City were considered a marvel of the modern world.
A bridge over water from the Ashokan reservoir.
A bridge straddles the separation weir between the Ashokan’s east and west basins.
The reservoir consists of an east and west basin, divided by a concrete weir, or low dam. A second reservoir, the Schoharie, was completed in 1928. Water from the Schoharie flows through an 18-mile-long tunnel into the Upper Esopus Creek, which then empties into the Ashokan’s west basin, 12 miles downstream. Including the water it gets from the Schoharie, 40 percent of New York City’s fresh water comes from the Ashokan Reservoir.

Naturally filtered by the rugged terrain of the Catskills watershed, New York City’s water is considered to be some of the best anywhere. But there is a downside.

Water entering the Ashokan’s west basin is often clouded by microscopic clay particles, picked up from eroded streambanks. Held in suspension, the fine particles give the turbid water a murky, reddish-brown color. Because they are so small, it can take a long time for the clay to settle. Once settling has occurred, the now-clear water is transferred to the east basin and from there it makes the 90-mile downhill journey to New York City through a system of aqueducts.

Not all of the clear water goes to New York. Following state protocols, a prescribed amount is released into the Lower Esopus and then on to the Hudson River. Increasingly though, brown turbid water also ends up in the Esopus. Unlike natural events, when the water clears up within a few days, it can take several weeks or even months for that to happen when the reservoir releases turbid water into the creek.

Houses on the shore of Esopus Creek with brown water.
The prolonged presence of turbid brown water in the Esopus Creek takes a toll on tourism.
For years, turbid water in the Ashokan was treated with aluminum sulfate (alum) which caused the clay particles to bind together and sink. Citing environmental concerns, the state mandated an alternative be found. “Everything worked quite well for 85 years,” says Adam Bosch, a spokesman for the New York City Water Supply System. “We were able to move water from Ashokan, and once a decade, if the west basin got overwhelmed, we would treat it with alum. And all of that worked just fine.”

Denied the use of alum in the 1990s, the solution was to dump the dirty water, much to the dismay of Saugerties Town Supervisor Fred Costello. “They dumped the most turbid water through the Lower Esopus down on us,” he says. “Fifteen years of that has had a dramatic impact. Especially here in Saugerties.”

“No combination of infrastructure and operations are going to reach a point where turbid water never goes down the creek again,” says Bosch. “That’s an irrational expectation. The question is, what can we do to minimize the duration and the number of times when that water goes down the creek.”
A map of the New York City Water Supply System.
(New York City Department of Environmental Protection)

The Cost of Clean Water


Besides serving on the Saugerties town board, Leeanne Thornton also serves as president of the Esopus Creek Conservancy, a 161-acre preserve directly across from the village beach, where Gail Porter launches her kayaks. “You could stand on the deck and see fish in the water,” she says. “Now you can’t see anything. You don’t see turtles sitting out on the logs anymore.”

Recently, a dramatic increase of invasive species has plagued the Esopus, especially where the creek widens in front of the beach. Water chestnuts and milfoil were thriving to the point where the beach was closed for periods of time in 2018. A year later, the town purchased a floating harvester for $58,000. There is already talk of adding another. “Five years ago, that wouldn’t have been anything that we would have felt was necessary,” says Thornton. Many suspect a correlation between the increase of invasive plants and dumping dirty water from the Ashokan Reservoir. Fred Costello agrees. “Absent the harvester, that looks like an open body of water,” he says. “But if we didn’t harvest the milfoil and the water chestnut, it would look like a swamp.”
A mechanical harvester being returned to a dock in the Esopus Creek.
The mechanical harvester returns to the dock in Saugerties, carrying a load of invasive plants taken from the Esopus Creek.
Supervisor Costello’s greatest concern is the effect turbid brown water has on tourism. “One of the things that makes people want to stay here is our natural resources and the opportunity to enjoy them,” he says. “If the creek is experiencing a turbidity release, it’s not exactly picturesque or motivating for people to go swimming or kayaking or to just rent a house that overlooks that.”

Gail Porter worries that people won’t want to rent one of her kayaks if they think the creek is in bad shape. “It was bad, probably a month ago,” she says. “It floods, and there’s brown water and it’s disgusting and it’s horrible.”

Costello hears often from fishermen about the dwindling bass population. “You would regularly see a lot of boats out there fishing,” he says. “You don’t see that at all anymore.”

But Saugerties’ supervisor readily admits to the benefits that come with the Ashokan nearby. “The reservoir is an outstanding taxpayer,” he says. “[Many local] areas get a significant amount of their tax base because of the reservoir.” The Ashokan also provides employment for many of the locals. “They’re all good people,” he says. “They are sensitive to a lot of what we are saying. But their primary mandate is to provide clean drinking water to the city.”

“Would it make sense to build something that cost $5 billion if you use it once every 10 years?” asks Adam Bosch. “We’re responsible to rate payers. We have to be responsible to them.”

Watching Over the River


About a mile east of the village beach, where the Lower Esopus empties into the Hudson River, Patrick Landewe lives with his wife and child at the Saugerties Lighthouse. Refitted with a solar-powered automated light, the station still serves as an aid to navigation. But the lighthouse keeper’s duties now revolve around maintaining the historic landmark, and acting as host to overnight guests. Two rooms are reserved as a bed and breakfast. “They still call us ‘keeper,’” he says. “Inn keeper, grounds keeper, bookkeeper.”
Patrick Landewe standing in front of the Saugerties Lighthouse.
As keeper of the Saugerties Lighthouse for 16 years, Patrick Landewe has witnessed changes on the Esopus Creek and Hudson River up close.
From his perch on the Hudson, Landewe is perfectly positioned to observe 16 years of change in the creek and river. “You see the contrast of the turbid, muddy creek with waters of the Hudson River,” he says. “So, we see how the creek is in direct contrast to the waters of the Hudson. The difference is the reservoir releases will be turbid and stay turbid for weeks [or even] months. So, it’s a prolonged turbid event.”

Landewe is convinced that climate change is exacerbating the problem. He first took notice of the change in 2005 when the Ashokan overflowed, sending massive amounts of water over its spillway, causing major flooding downstream. “That really woke up the municipalities to the issues of the reservoir,” he says. “But it also woke up New York City to the fact that they’re going to have to contend with these major storms.”

Patrolling the Hudson


Twenty miles south of Saugerties, John Lipscomb is pulling away from the dock at the Kingston waterfront. “RIVERKEEPER” is spelled out in tall black letters along the hull of his 36-foot-long repurposed fishing vessel. A few puffy clouds hang low in the late summer sky.

With three-year-old yellow lab Batu aboard, Lipscomb makes a slow half circle on the Rondout Creek, eventually pointing toward the Hudson, just a short distance away. He stops for a minute to chat across the water with the crew of the Clearwater, a replica sloop dedicated to protecting the Hudson River.

Before he gets to the Rondout Lighthouse, he leans out his side window and challenges a couple of high school rowers to a race. “Let’s go!” he says. If not for the fact that they were pointed in the opposite direction, the kids would have won. The Riverkeeper boat rarely gets above six knots.

Covering more than 5,000 nautical miles a year, Capt. Lipscomb has been patrolling the Hudson from March through December, for every one of the past 21 years. When on patrol, he and Batu sleep aboard the boat. “His community goes all the way up into the Mohawk River and all the way down into New York Harbor,” Lipscomb says. “He’s great company.”
John Lipscomb aboard his boat the Riverkeeper.
John Lipscomb has been a fixture on the Hudson for over two decades. “The cost of processing Poughkeepsie’s drinking water is higher because of New York City. Why isn’t New York City paying for that?”
Out on the water, Capt. Lipscomb is often the face, eyes and ears of Riverkeeper, an organization founded in 1966 by a group of fishermen distraught at what had become of the Hudson River. Today the organization is a well-funded advocate for the river, conducting scientific tests, holding polluters accountable and working with communities and government agencies to ensure the health of the river and the people who depend on it. Besides his patrol duties, Lipscomb regularly and readily shares his knowledge of the river and its ecosystem with regional decision-makers and members of the media aboard his boat.

With Batu peering over the side, Lipscomb slows to point out a water treatment plant on the western shore. The facility serves the town of Esopus, one of seven municipalities that have banded together over concerns about the quality of water they take from the river. It was three years ago that Rhinebeck Mayor Gary Bassett recognized a threat.

Aerial View of the Lower Esopus Creek

Ashokan Esopus 2Turbidity, courtesy of Michael Nelson, Vimeo.


Small Towns Consolidate Their Power


Alarmed about a proposal to park oil-laden barges on the Hudson, the mayor shared his concerns with Riverkeeper’s Dan Shapley, a water quality expert. The two quickly came to the conclusion that by itself, Rhinebeck has no political power. “But if you start to add up [the seven communities], now you’ve got 100,000 people,” says Shapley. “Suddenly it sounds like something that people will pay attention to when you raise a concern.”

Within six months, all seven communities had officially signed on.

“That’s unheard of in government,” says Bassett. “To get seven municipalities to agree on a common interest in that short a time and form an organization. It’s been a tremendous success.”

Calling themselves the Hudson 7, the group’s members include the towns of Esopus, Hyde Park and Lloyd, together with the town and city of Poughkeepsie and the town and village of Rhinebeck. Because they all depend on the Hudson for their drinking water, turbidity in the Esopus Creek and its effects on their own infrastructure is a major issue for the group.

When turbid water makes its way into the water intakes of communities downstream, it is not only inconvenient for them, but costly as well.
Dan Shapley
Riverkeeper’s Dan Shapley. “What we’re basically asking of the city is, don’t continue this status quo solution, which is a great solution for you, but ruins the environment downstream, and ruins it for the communities that rely on that downstream.”
As a mayor, Gary Bassett’s concerns are pragmatic. “Some of the pumps can’t handle the volume of sludge,” he says. “So those processors get shut down. That sludge has to be hauled away. Our costs go up as a result of that.” With only a three-day supply on hand at any time, if the pumps go down, the town is soon without water. “The river is our reservoir,” he says. “We’re counting on the river constantly being there. We’re counting on our plants running 24/7.”

Solving the problem of turbidity in the Esopus and Hudson is probably beyond the century-old engineering in use today. “This is a reservoir that has served well for 100 years,” says Riverkeeper’s Dan Shapley. “We’ve got to build it for the next 100 years, and that’s going to take some actual investment, because the climate is changing. The issues are changing. And we have to be good neighbors, as well as getting our drinking water.”

Lighthouse keeper Patrick Landewe is blunt in his assessment. “The local residents have always gotten the short end of the stick.”

An Ongoing Problem


Leeanne Thornton, of the Esopus Creek Conservancy, remembers a time when most of the village children learned to swim in the Esopus. “Being able to swim out to the dock and back, that was a rite of passage for kids,” she says. “This same group of adults now, when they bring their children to the beach, it’s ‘I’m not letting them go into that water. It’s disgusting.’”

Thornton is sure she knows why things are different today. “We didn’t have [the turbidity problem] until the releases started,” she says. “There’s been a direct correlation from the dumping starting to the negative visual impact on this community.”
Gail Porter renting kayaks on the Esopus.
Gail Porter has been renting kayaks on the Esopus for seven years. “They want to keep their drinking water clean at the expense of the drinking water of the folks that live here. How dirty is that?”
The mom and her kids at the village beach just recently moved to Saugerties. They still keep a home in Queens, at least for the time being. As such, they are well aware of where their city water comes from. “We’re really thankful for this beach… but I also wish the water was clearer,” she says, looking beyond her mud-covered children. “There’s a lot of back and forth between keeping [New York City] happy, and people up here happy. I think it’s more important to keep the people up here happy.”

Leeanne Thornton takes the long view. “We want another generation to really be able to enjoy the beauty here.”
David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at dkidd@governing.com.
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