After attending the “Silent Villages of the Lost Valley: The Stories Beneath the Pepacton Reservoir” presentation sponsored by the ASHC at Andes Central School on June 30th:
During my recent vacation in the Catskill Mountains of New York, I attended a “memory day” for 4 communities that no longer exist. They were dismantled and covered with water in the 1950s to create the largest reservoir in the New York City water supply, providing nearly 25% of the Big Apple’s drinking water. Folks who had grown up in these towns came together bringing photographs and other memorabilia, stories, songs, slides, and home movies to share. For years, our family has visited this area of the Catskills and admired the impressive 5,700-acre expanse of water that stretches 18 miles through the valley. I knew where the water went, but until last week, I’d never thought about how long the reservoir had been there, how it was created, or what had been the impact of its creation. My son remarked, after watching a movie made by high school students about one of the “lost towns,” that he’d never look at the reservoir in the same way again. Neither shall I.
We heard a woman tell how she’d introduced herself in school in 2nd grade saying “I won’t live here very long because the town is going to be destroyed.” This was several decades before the dam and reservoir were actually built, but the residents lived with the fear for a very long time. When the time came, the land was taken by eminent domain. The residents were paid for their property; but they tell of how they lost the most fertile farmland in the area. They lost homes lovingly built by their own hands or by their ancestors. They lost the community they had known, for they were scattered here and yon after the towns were gone. I was told about a woman who used her payment to purchase a new home in a nearby community – a prefab house that never felt like the home that her husband had built with such attention to the woodworking detail. And, I saw the longing in folks’ eyes as they recalled their years of growing up in a town they can never revisit except in their minds and hearts. There are things which money cannot replace.
Having lived in New York City – and living in a city now – I understand the need for clean, potable water to be provided from “somewhere.” I am not naïve enough to think that all decisions will be easily accepted, fair to all parties, or lacking in controversy. It’s easy enough to say “Well, they were paid for their land” and let it go at that. Personally, I found it helpful to hear the stories of those whose sacrifice made the reservoir possible. I listened to these words spoken in pain: “It bothers me that people take the water for granted, that they don’t know what we sacrificed for them to have it, and they don’t say ‘thank you.’” There was resentment even after 50 years – a feeling of having been cheated, of having something precious taken without consent, and of not feeling appreciated.
Aside from the towns that were razed to build the reservoir, the impact continues to this day. Because the water is so pure, NYC does not have to filter it. To keep the water pure, there are stringent restrictions on development and land use around the reservoir as well as limitations on the recreational use of the water (no swimming and only limited boating – rowboats with permit). Local municipalities do not have decision-making ability on certain issues concerning their towns. I overheard the comment, “When the city has to filter the water, wait and see what happens to the development policies around here.” There was a sense in which folks felt like pawns on a large chessboard.
Indeed, there is more to the picture than I knew. I am reminded that there is more to a story than the needs of one community. We are connected. We affect one another by our land and water use, our care for the environment, the development and growth of cities, and our lifestyle desires. I am a city-dweller and have spent the majority of my life in cities; yet, I have a great love for the small communities that have nurtured me at points in my life. Today, I pause to give thanks for the resources for life which are provided to me by communities other than my own – for the farms where my food is grown, the reservoirs which store and provide my water, the forest from which my house was built, and the small towns changed and swallowed up by ever-expanding cities and highways.~