As you know, the government doesn’t believe in fake news, so it was a bit of a surprise to read the following on a USGS website: “No doubt the first public-supply water system was when Jack the Caveman was hired by his neighbors to fetch a bucket of water from Dinosaur River in exchange for some delicious prehistoric bran muffins.” The next sentence concedes that this homespun account of the genesis of public water-supply systems was fictional.
As the main source of public water for New York City and a million or so residents of the Hudson Valley, the water supplied from the Catskills is big business. When the New York City Department of Environmental Protection announced last Thursday that it was going to spend $750 million to upgrade the water-supply infrastructure at the Ashokan Reservoir in northern Ulster County, the news seemed a pretty big deal. New York City was announcing that it was again about to shake the money tree, just as historian Alf Evers said it had on the day that Gotham paid for the land it had condemned and bought to build the Ashokan Reservoir a century ago.
It’s extremely unlikely that a bucket of Catskills water was ever exchanged for bran muffins. Maybe there was a trade somewhere, though. The region was — and is — even more famous for its hard cider than for its bran muffins.
The third water tunnel to and through New York City was first authorized in 1950. Sixty-seven years and many billions of dollars later, it’s still under construction. On May 31, 2017 the adopted New York City budget reappropriated $13 million for continued capital spending on the tunnel project for fiscal year 2019, $270.5 million in FY 2020, and $31.5 million for FY 2021. Much of that money is going to the shafts, connections and activation of the Brooklyn-Queens section of the tunnel.
Two years ago the present DEP acting commissioner Anthony Sapienza said the money for finishing work connecting the third tunnel to the city water distribution system was being delayed. Why? “This work has been deferred because the funding was re-allocated to another, more critical priority,” Sapienza was quoted a year later in the July 2016 issue of the Engineering News Record as saying, “specifically, the dam and dike strengthening of the Ashokan Reservoir. Our intent is to reinstate the funding for design and construction as other priorities shift.” The deferral of funding for the water tunnel was later reversed.
With the passage of the city budget two years later, the DEP made Sapienza’s northward policy addition official. “The Ashokan Century Program underscores New York City’s commitment to keep the water supply infrastructure in a state of good repair for generations to come,” Sapienza said last Thursday morning at the reservoir. Practically every piece of infrastructure that impounds or coveys water in the Ashokan — through which about 40 percent of New York City’s billion gallons of water a day passes — will be upgraded.
The largest public-works project in the Catskills since the completion of Cannonsville Reservoir in 1964 won’t happen right away. In fact, the work at the 8315-acre water impoundment area will be stretched out for “approximately” 15 years. And we’re talking in DEP time.
Design and engineering will start next year. Construction, which is likely to begin five years later, is expected to last for approximately a decade.
Total construction employment in the Hudson Valley region was a robust 393,500 in June of this year, according to Department of Labor data. There were only 2900 such jobs in Ulster County, though.
My rough back-of-the-envelope guess is that the Ashokan Century Program will produce construction, technical and administrative jobs in the low hundreds for ten to 15 years — a significant but less than colossal contributor to local efforts in economic development.
The DEP press release last week outlined five program components:
- Structural upgrades to the Olivebridge dam and the reservoir dikes (29,000 linear feet of impoundment) will be a major task. These structures will be repaired, and new drainage and monitoring equipment installed.
- The diversion point that conveys water from the reservoir into the Catskills aqueduct (the “headworks”) will receive major attention. Many of the complex of chambers, gates and valves that direct the water will be rehabilitated or replaced.
- The spillway in the east basin, a dramatic sight when water pours over it and descends abruptly in its channel toward the Esopus, will be reconstructed.
- The monument to J. Waldo Smith, chief engineer of the original construction, and its adjacent land will be made a central location for public education and recreation.
- After five million dollars in repairs, the DEP has recently reopened the bridge over the dividing weir between the eastern and western basins (known to locals as “The Fifteen Arches Bridge”) to two lanes of traffic. That bridge will now be reconstructed, widened and connected to the walkway between the south side of the reservoir and the future county rail-trail on the north side. According to DEP spokesperson Adam Bosch, far more than bridgework is planned. The new work will update the system, actually a dam whose job is to pass water guided through a series of huge metal gates from the more turbid west basin to the less disturbed east basin in a designed way.