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Empire of Water: An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply

By: David Soll (Author)

Cornell University Press

Hardback | Apr 2013 | #204275 | ISBN-13: 9780801449901
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NHBS Price: £18.50 $23/€21 approx

About this book

Supplying water to millions is not simply an engineering and logistical challenge. As David Soll shows in his finely observed history of the nation's largest municipal water system, the task of providing water to New Yorkers transformed the natural and built environment of the city, its suburbs, and distant rural watersheds. Almost as soon as New York City completed its first municipal water system in 1842, it began to expand the network, eventually reaching far into the Catskill Mountains, more than one hundred miles from the city. Empire of Water explores the history of New York City's water system from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century, focusing on the geographical, environmental, and political repercussions of the city's search for more water.

Soll vividly recounts the profound environmental implications for both city and countryside. Some of the region's most prominent landmarks, such as the High Bridge across the Harlem River, Central Park's Great Lawn, and the Ashokan Reservoir in Ulster County, have their origins in the city's water system. By tracing the evolution of the city's water conservation efforts and watershed management regime, Soll reveals the tremendous shifts in environmental practices and consciousness that occurred during the twentieth century. Few episodes better capture the long-standing upstate-downstate divide in New York than the story of how mountain water came to flow from spigots in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Soll concludes by focusing on the landmark watershed protection agreement signed in 1997 between the city, watershed residents, environmental organizations, and the state and federal governments. After decades of rancor between the city and Catskill residents, the two sides set aside their differences to forge a new model of environmental stewardship. His account of this unlikely environmental success story offers a behind the scenes perspective on the nation's most ambitious and wide-ranging watershed protection program.

"Empire of Water is an impressive work on an important topic. In clear and engaging prose, Soll explores the past management of New York City's water system and demonstrates that the story he tells has important implications for policy decisions today."
– Michael Rawson, Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, author of Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston

"This is first-rate environmental history. In Empire of Water, David Soll goes well beyond the existing literature on New York City and its water supply. He makes clear that we cannot understand the insatiable urban demand for water and the regional impact of that demand without examining the larger consequences."
– Martin Melosi, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor and Director of the Center for Public History, University of Houston, author of The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present


"Empire of Water chronicles the fascinating story of New York City's water supply, which comes mostly from reservoirs in the Catskills and, remarkably, is unfiltered. That's because the city has spent billions of dollars and decades of effort working with residents, businesses, and governments in the Catskills to protect the reservoirs from pollution caused by runoff from roads, farms, and dairies. This meticulously researched and persuasively reasoned history explores the change in New York City's attitude toward water, from indifference to profligate water waste and environmental pollution to stalwart champion of water conservation and protection. The best histories shed light on the past as they illuminate the present. Empire of Water is in this category. By protecting the ecosystem services provided by a pristine watershed in northern New York, the city avoided having to spend $8 billion to build a treatment plant. As we confront water shortages in the United States and across the world, Empire of Water teaches that business as usual – looking for new oases and relying on massive engineering solutions – no longer makes sense. We must acknowledge nature's limits and work within them to secure a sustainable future for coming generations."

– Robert Glennon, Regents' Professor and Morris K. Udall Professor of Law and Public Policy, University of Arizona, author of Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It


Introduction. The Evolution of a Water System

Chapter 1. From Croton to Catskill
Chapter 2. Up Country
Chapter 3. Drought, Delays, and the Delaware
Chapter 4. Back to the Supreme Court
Chapter 5. The Water System and the Urban Crisis
Chapter 6. The Rise of Watershed Management
Chapter 7. Implementing the Watershed Agreement
Epilogue. Putting Politics in Its Place


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David Soll is Assistant Professor in the Watershed Institute for Collaborative Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire.

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