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Were We Swimming in Your Drinking Water?

No, we weren’t swimming in your drinking water, but these two are.

Our Town downtown
May 21, 2007

A trip back to the ‘burbs to pinpoint the body of water in which we used to trespass

You may have read that New York City is planning to raise your water rates starting in July. Since you probably don’t pay a “water bill” – for tenants, the water charge is generally built into the rent, and for apartment owners, it’s part of the maintenance fee –you may have filed it away in the someone-else’s-problem folder and gotten no further than the headline. That’s what I did.
But then I started thinking that given the subject of my column, perhaps I should understand why our water was getting more expensive to avoid the potential for embarrassment if it should happen to come up in casual conversation.
Turns out the rate hike will be going toward some multi-billion-dollar fix-ups to our water and wastewater infrastructure.
The third-largest item on the New York City Water Board’s agenda is a $1.6 billion filtration plant underneath Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. It will remove biological pathogens from the Croton Water System, which provides us with 10 percent of our water. City water has never been filtered before, but the reservoirs that feed the Croton Water System are located in Westchester and Putnam Counties, where building and population booms have apparently polluted the water to such an extent that it’s become necessary.
“Anybody can go up to Westchester and look around,” said Ian Michaels, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection. “There’s a lot of sprawling development.”
That’s where I’m from, and I didn’t need to drive an hour back home to know that he was right. I saw housing developments aplenty sprout up off of back roads and grow like teenage boys. When I was in fourth grade, the elementary school in my town reopened after decades of disuse to accommodate the rocketing kid population, and wing after temporary wing was tacked on until there was barely any playground left. My high school is hardly recognizable as the same place I graduated from in 2000; a huge, institutional-looking edifice ate the two-story brick building that once sufficed as Fox Lane High School.
But I did need to check on something. All this talk of reservoirs had gotten me daydreaming about a soft mucky bottom dotted with hidden sharp rocks that made you step gingerly; floating downriver beneath a canopy of fluorescent-green beech leaves; the claws of our chocolate lab, who would paddle after my brother and me and half drown us in a frenzied rescue attempt; the unpleasantness of putting socks back on wet feet.
That river we used to swim in, the one that fed a reservoir – was that part of the city’s water system? Was that what those No Trespassing signs were about? Had we grown up bathing in the water that then filled your bathtub? The idea pleased me, in a “we’re all connected” kind of way.
I called my dad, my brother – useless. This mystery called for a field trip to my hometown, beautiful but boring Bedford.
It had been awhile. In search of the entrance to the hiking trail that led to the river, I drove all the way to the next town on a winding dirt road, but a few gravelly U-turns later I was there. I parked and jogged the familiar two and a half miles to the river – passing an office retreat, three women with gardening hoes, a father and son, and finally a sign that said “DO NOT GO BEYOND THIS POINT / PRIVATE PROPERTY OWNED BY CONNECTICUT-AMERICAN WATER CO.” – and dove in.
To pass the time as I dripped dry, I sat on a network of twisted roots and looked over the pamphlet I had picked up at the map shelter in the parking lot. It showed the Mianus River – the one I’d just swum in – flowing into S.J. Bargh Reservoir, which, according to the map legend, provides the drinking water for 130,000 residents of Rye, Rye Brook, Port Chester, and Greenwich.
You may be glad to hear that I was not sullying your water, but I was out of a column idea. Refreshed and utterly dejected, I wandered back to my car. How was I going to make this now pointless and time consuming (although admittedly pleasant) trip applicable to the city?
I did know that the nearby Cross River Reservoir was a feeder of the city system; I had looked it up the day before. And although I’ve never recreated in or on said reservoir, I’ve passed it many times and seen dozens of fishing boats on the shore. Maybe something was going on there, or if not, at least I could paddle around in a boat for awhile.
But all the boats were chained to trees to prevent against just such an outing. These were responsible boat owners: on the bench-seat of one upside-down aluminum rowboat was a bumper sticker reading, “I Fish & I Vote.”
There was no one to talk to, absolutely nothing to report. I got back in my car and gunned it New York-ward – inspiration sometimes hits when I’m moving fast – then screeched into a residential side street, grabbed my camera and backtracked on foot.
The swan couple that had caught my eye was elegant but camera-unfriendly: one would plunge its head underwater for fish just as the other’s snaking neck emerged. Despite my stealthy bushwhacking they floated away just as I approached. I waded after them, past broken tree trunks and through a screen of overhanging foliage, determined as a paparazzo after Lindsay Lohan to get a decent shot of the pair of snow white swans bobbing in the water that will course through your dishwasher.
It’s not breaking news, but it’s sort of pleasing in a “we’re all connected” kind of way.