Amidst a difficult month, it’s easy to forget a more hopeful milestone: April 22, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Though this year’s event is going digital, the annual celebration is rooted in the (literally) dirty work of environmental cleanup, as well as the work of building awareness about the planet’s vulnerable ecosystems. The story of the Ridgewood Reservoir’s radical transformation, from water infrastructure to wetland, embodies the spirit of both these endeavors. Nestled within Highland Park, along the border of Brooklyn and Queens, Ridgewood Reservoir was built in the mid-19th century to serve the independent city of Brooklyn. When the site was decommissioned, its three basins — comprising nearly 50 acres — were gradually reclaimed by flora and fauna. Following more than a decade of efforts by concerned citizens to preserve this emergent ecology, and to provide greater public access to it, the Ridgewood Reservoir was designated as a historic site in 2018, and officially classified as a nature preserve later that year.
NYC H2O, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching New Yorkers about their local water ecology, has been at the forefront of this recent push for preservation. The group was even set to open an exhibition about their work at the Queens Museum: “Ridgewood Reservoir for the 21st Century,” to be situated around the museum’s Watershed Model, includes evocative photos and richly illustrated plans for the site’s future. While the exhibition has been postponed for the time being, NYC H2O’s Executive Director, Matthew Malina, shares some of the stories and images that have animated their stewardship of this unique sanctuary for human and non-human New Yorkers.
What is the mission of NYC H2O? How did it get started?
New York City is blessed with good water, because our reservoirs are 100 miles up by the Catskill Mountains, in what is basically a nature preserve. It’s an amazing thing. We teach a lot of kids and other public audiences about water and nature by providing in-person programs, whether that be walks around a site like the Ridgewood Reservoir, beach cleanups with an ecology lesson at the end, or public talks.
We started the program from nothing. In 2014, I was hoping to do just a handful of tours, so I got together a group of friends and people that were interested, and we made a curriculum. While we were hoping to do maybe five tours, we got inundated with requests, and wound up doing 22 that spring alone. There was no budget. It was just people that saw the value in bringing kids outside to learn about nature up close, how the city and its infrastructure works, and to not take our water system for granted, because a lot goes into it. We’ve brought over 23,000 kids on these outdoor field trips since we started.
The Ridgewood Reservoir seems to be a focal point for NYC H2O. Why does the site play such an important part of your work?
The Ridgewood Reservoir quickly became our most visited site. We have brought over 5,000 students there. It is the last remaining infrastructural piece of the Brooklyn Waterworks reservoir system, built by the City of Brooklyn in 1858: the same year that the reservoir in Central Park was built by the City of New York. Two separate cities, two unique reservoirs and water systems. Since the Ridgewood Reservoir is in the geographic center of Brooklyn and Queens, it is the ideal location for an educational center that would highlight the history and engineering of the Brooklyn Waterworks, as well as the incredible nature that thrives there now. We also began organizing volunteer stewardship events at the Reservoir to foster ecological diversity and sustainability. Together with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks), we plant native varieties of plants and cull many of the invasive plants that had started to take over.
Why was the Ridgewood Reservoir decommissioned in the first place?
The short answer is that it wasn’t needed anymore. After Brooklyn was annexed by New York City, the Reservoir was used mostly as a source of water pressure for fire hydrants. By the 1950s, New York City had completed three of the four Delaware reservoirs — Rondout, Neversink and Pepacton — and the Cannonsville Reservoir in the 1960s. Those reservoirs are huge. The Pepacton Reservoir is as big as the island of Manhattan. And that’s in addition to the two Catskill reservoirs, the Ashokan and the Schoharie, which were built in 1917 and 1924, respectively.
The City had drained the East Basin of the Ridgewood Reservoir by the 1950s. And then in the 1980s, the West Basin was drained as well, because people were swimming in it, and a couple of kids drowned. After that, the basins were neglected, and forests began to grow. What’s interesting is that, because the East Basin was drained earlier, it had a 30-year head start on the West Basin, so the forests are at different stages of ecological succession. They have different trees in them. It’s a little lesson, right there in front of your eyes, when you go to visit the reservoir.
The Middle Basin still has a pond in it, and the water level has actually been going up. One of our projects at the Reservoir is to save the pond, because it’s being overrun by phragmites, a very aggressive plant: Their root structure is such that they basically form a matrix, and their rhizomes are so dense that they trap any organic material that decomposes, basically building their own land. As the plant grows, it fills in the pond. We want to maintain the pond, because it is a habitat for birds, waterfowl, dragonflies, and everything else that grows up in a pond. Wetlands in general are nurseries for ecosystems.
At what point did efforts to preserve the Ridgewood Reservoir as a natural wetland begin?
It started before we came on the scene. In 2007, a dance professor named Jennifer Monson had invited some birders and folks from the community to do a survey of the natural life in the Reservoir. At the time, there had been a plan by NYC Parks to breach the walls of the Reservoir, because they were worried that the structure wasn’t sound. It was kind of silly, because there was only four feet of water in the Reservoir then, and it would have been a very big construction project to drain the water out. The other part of their plan was to actually gut the basins and put in active recreation equipment, like turf fields for soccer and so forth.
A group called the Highland Park Ridgewood Reservoir Alliance got some politicians on board, like Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez and Bill Thompson, who was the city comptroller at the time. They were able to get NYC Parks to table their plan. We came along in 2017 and drafted the application for the National Register of Historic Places, which went through in early 2018. After that, we began working closely with the Department of Environmental Conservation to provide support documents for their survey and report that delineated the reservoir as a wetland. So that sealed the deal, and protected the reservoir as a nature preserve. Our current work there is done with the consent and assistance of NYC Parks.
What are your plans for the future of the reservoir?
Most people that we’ve interviewed and met with want to see a cultural and educational center at the reservoir that celebrates the ecological diversity of the site, as well as its cultural and historical significance. The Reservoir still has actual infrastructural elements, like the gatehouses — all that can be refurbished to serve as a wonderful visitor’s center. People would eat that up.
The Reservoir is also an ideal place for an educational center because of its status as a nature preserve. There are eight unique ecological zones within the 50 acres that comprise the three basins. It’s really an exciting opportunity. Already there’s support among politicians at all levels — but has the money been budgeted yet? No. But eventually it will be, because the students that are coming on our tours today will eventually become those politicians and will make it happen. Hopefully it won’t take that long though.
Do you see greater public access to the Reservoir coming into conflict with the mission of preserving its unique ecology?
By and large, the people that come to the Reservoir love the Reservoir, and they want to see good at the Reservoir. They bring watchful eyes that far, far outnumber the people that create mischief or whatnot. That’s why it is so important to open up more areas of the Reservoir, including the East Path. There are two paths that go in between the three basins. The one on the west end is open to the public during the daytime. The eastern one is not yet open, and it’s unfortunate because it features the original fence from 1858 intact, and it has more trees. It’s very magical. We cleared it last year, but NYC Parks won’t open it on a regular basis because sections of the fence are missing. It’s an understandable safety precaution, but within a few months, after some basic construction, the East Path could be ready to open to the public. It’s just like: “Let us take care of it, let us do the work.”
What do you feel are the most pressing issues facing the city’s water ecologies today?
Certainly the lead in pipes. That’s a major issue, particularly in schools. I give credit to NYC Parks for testing all of their water fountains and labeling them if they pass, and shutting or remediating them if they don’t. While the combined sewer overflow (CSO) issue is also a concern, it’s hard to get people to really take it that seriously unless you let people go to the waterfront to see it for themselves.
In my mind, the most pressing ecological issue for the city is the Ridgewood Reservoir. Brooklyn and Queens have almost 5 million people amongst them, including hundreds of thousands of students. The reservoir is in the middle of all that. You have an opportunity to have an educational center that’s within a 20-minute bus ride to hundreds of schools. In this time of climate change, and now pandemic, it’s imperative that you have open space and green space where kids can enjoy themselves in a healthy way, and be inspired and appreciate all this beautiful nature. And they have to appreciate it firsthand, because otherwise why would they care about issues like CSO? Why would they care to recycle? What motivation do they have to help the environment at all?