Why not continue one’s train of thought from previous posts? Speaking of water in New York City, this article in the New York Times amused me for what it did not discuss. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a ballot measure in the city of San Francisco this November to spend $8 million to study whether the Bay Area’s main water source, the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, could be feasibly drained and dismantled. I think the title of my previous post expresses my opinion on that topic. There are many who agree with me, namely the mayor of San Francisco as well as many Bay Area business groups. What’s funny about the New York Times reporting on this issue is that New York City could just as easily have been in a similar boat itself.
New York’s water supply comes from the Catskills, some 163 miles away. The Pepacton Reservoir supplies the city with 25% of its water supply, and it displaced 974 people in four towns. The outrage! In fact, most reservoirs acquired by New York City around 100 years ago involved city representatives buying out local families and towns, then filling their quiet valleys with water to be stored for New York. It was contentious, not surprisingly, but no one is begging the city to remove any reservoir to restore the small towns and quiet valleys to their previous state. Contrast that with Owens Lake in southern California, which people are still mad about, and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in northern California, and you have to wonder, why isn’t there more water conflict in New York?
I think there are a couple of reasons why. One is that these were not originally protected environments. In fact, state-owned Forest Preserve land could not, under the state constitution, be sold to any other party, so the privately owned land in the Catskills was targeted by the city. Another is that these are not remote areas today. There are towns along the shorelines of many New York City reservoirs, many of which were relocated from now-flooded property. Third, people don’t tend re-fight battles won by progress, at least in the US. If a block of houses is demolished to build a mall, local citizens don’t tend to camp outside the mall for the houses to be rebuilt. We seem to have a special blind spot for people displaced by progress.
But not the environment, which I think is interesting. Scientifically speaking, we’re actually really bad at environmental restoration. We’re good at spending money on it, but bad at even knowing if it’s working. (This comment comes from research articles I’ve read about river restoration efforts in particular.) So we have to balance the restoration effort against its likelihood of success as well as its cost. The cultural difference between New Yorkers and Californians, though, is a big contributor in these water debates: I find that Californian environmentalists, especially from the San Francisco area, are very impractical about the infrastructure necessary for their lifestyles. Full-on environmental restoration comes way before any consideration of cost or likelihood of success or alternative strategies. So if we’re placing bets on cities likely to be viable 100 years from now, I guess I’d put money on New York over San Francisco.