A close look at water in the Catskills

Ashokan Reservoir (photo by Dion Ogust)

Ashokan Reservoir (photo by Dion Ogust)

People have always congregated around water. While the streams and creeks of the Catskills flowing into the Hudson River might seem like footnotes to a landscape today defined by roads, they were at one time essential to transport and commerce. Today, following the devastating floods of 2011, a wake-up call to the necessity of effectively managing stream corridors, watercourses again have come to the fore.

The culture and hydrology of the Catskills, along with an overview of the extreme weather trends caused by climate change, constituted the meat of “Flowing Through Time: Streams and Catskill Mountain Communities,” the fifth annual Ashokan watershed conference, at the Ashokan Center in Olive on April 5.

In his opening remarks, local photographer, fly fisherman and licensed guide Mark Loete, a member of the Ashokan Watershed Management Program Stakeholder Council, provided a reminder of why all the attention to our streams.


The Ashokan Reservoir supplies 40 percent of New York City’s water. New York City is one of only four large municipalities in the nation with a federal Environmental Protection Agency-sanctioned unfiltered water system, said Loete, and it is by far the largest. The EPA reviews the water quality and decides at intervals (currently 10 years) whether to issue New York City reservoir management a filtration avoidance determination (FAD).

Loete was followed by historian, author and educator Bill Birns, who formerly taught in the Margaretville and Onteora school systems. Birns’ colorful talk was followed in turn by charts of sobering facts and figures on the changing hydrology of the Catskills presented by Allan Frei, a climatologist at Hunter College who is studying how climate change is impacting the New York City water supply. Finally, Roy Schiff, a scientist and engineer at Milone & MacBroom, Inc., which manages channels, river corridors and flood plains, argued that we can finally manage our streams more effectively by letting nature run its course whenever practical and feasible.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County, and the Ulster County Soil and Water Conservation District, sponsors of the Ashokan Center event, are coordinating efforts in a $4.9-million watershed stream management plan, now in its sixth year, which includes the recently completed $3-million restoration of the Stony Clove drainage system with which Schiff is involved.

Loete delved deeply into the watershed’s history, noting that the Catskills remained for the most part a vast, impenetrable hemlock forest inhabited by wolves long after the Hudson Valley was settled. Shandaken didn’t receive its town charter until 1804, compared with 1651 for Kingston.

Just when the forest had been destroyed by the tanning and other extractive industries, the railroads arrived, spurring a dramatic growth in tourism. A few years later, America’s environmental awareness was being raised by native John Burroughs, whose nature essays were read by every schoolchild. Construction of the Ashokan Reservoir system was completed in 1915, conveying the pure fresh water of the mountains to five million people downstate. Managing that watershed today is challenged by population growth — the system currently serves nine million — and climate change.


The lure of romantic wilderness

Birns wrote his dissertation at Indiana University on the unique dialect of the Catskills. This northernmost example of the mountain speech of Appalachia “is like black English vernacular, with unconscious grammatical rules,” said Birns, who traveled the back valleys and hollows of the region in the early 1970s. “The difference is a mark of culture, not a lack of education.”

In his talk on the indigenous culture of the Catskills, Birns said he first connected with the area through a college roommate.

Birns provided a whirlwind synopsis, starting with the hunter gatherers who appeared around Athens, New York 10,000 years ago. Back in the 1940s, residents of Margaretville dug up points, pestles, and other artifacts dating back 3000 to 4000 years. The arrival of agriculture about 1500 years ago led to the formation of tribes, which were called the Esopus by the European settlers. The tribes cultivated corn, beans and squash in the Hurley flats and other lowlands, moving up the creeks in the summer to fish, pick berries, and hunt. They spoke an Algonquin language, and most of their descendants today live in Wisconsin, Birns said.

When the Europeans arrived in the early 17th century, they at first shared the flats with the natives. Outbreaks of violence, often triggered by drunkenness, culminated in the Esopus Wars in the 1650s, which was the beginning of the eradication of the natives by the whites.

The mountain culture whose remnants survive today started after the Revolution, when a military tract of land was set aside for veterans in the western part of the region. Birns said in 1954, when the Pepacton Reservoir was being built, it was discovered that virtually every family who farmed along the banks of the Delaware traced its ancestry back to a Revolutionary War veteran.