If You Are What You Drink, Gotham Is Upstate Rainwater — and, Increasingly, Plastic Bottles

Doing the tap dance.

I. The Champagne of Tap

I had a childhood friend whose father swore by New York City water. He kept glass bottles of tap in the fridge, and it was all he drank, save for a nightly cocktail on his balcony overlooking Carl Schurz Park, or the Heineken he cradled while watching the Yankees on television.

If the water ran brown with bits of iron oxide, as often happens after city works service a water main, he chalked it up to diligent municipal upkeep and let it run clear. When New Yorkers, including his wife, started cramming fridges with Perrier, he declared: “New York water is the best in the world. It’s the only thing that tastes right to me.”

Such strong hydrological opinions aren’t uncommon among New Yorkers, but he was ahead of his time; today’s ecogastronomes forgo the bottle for the faucet. They’re joined in hydro-solidarity with the Delaware County farmer who keeps his cows out of nearby streams; the midtown chef who buys from him, and the Manhattan school kid blogging about drinking fountains. Despite his primal allegiance to tap, from his Upper East Side perch my friend’s father couldn’t have fathomed the much-heralded, highly complicated and endlessly elegant system of reservoirs, aqueducts, and 30-foot-wide cast iron pipes, that delivers the water that daily quenches the 8 million residents of New York City. Even for biophobic New Yorkers who consider a walk in the park the penultimate nature hike, the water in our tap may be our most intimate connection to our landscape. Like some massive god-given Brita filter covering 2,000 square miles on both sides of the Hudson River, the oak and pine forests, the clover-laden pasture, the organic vegetable farms, the muddy swamps and all the other green space in the watershed provide New York City one of the purest, most abundant supplies of drinking water of any metropolis on Earth.

Our remarkable water depends partly on good fortune: topography (the gradual slope of New York State towards the city moves water by gravity, not pumping), geology (underlying rock and minerals in upstate soils are ideal for removing pollutants) and abundant rainfall (a similar system couldn’t work out West). The success is human invention too, boasting the longest tunnel in the world and more stone than all the pyramids in Egypt, together moving 1 million gallons of water every minute with sufficient pressure to reach fifth-floor faucets.

But the city’s water supply also depends on a considerable bargain: what’s good for people upstream is good for people downstream. In contrast to municipal water systems that pump water from underground aquifers, New York’s pipes are fed entirely by surface water–constantly replenished by rainfall and wholly dependent on how we treat the landscape. So, while building another strip mall or housing development atop the Ogallala Aquifer won’t disrupt the water supply for Lubbock, Texas, construction in the Hudson Valley compromises the water supply on Ludlow Street. Without a landscape of forests, pastures, wetlands and working farms, we don’t get clean water.

So instead of spending billions on a filtration plant, the city has invested considerable time and money encouraging upstate communities to prevent the sort of swamp-filling, forest-clearing and parking lot-building that degrades downstate water. In the 1960s, the city even convinced President Kennedy to give it primary use of rivers that also quench New Jersey and Pennsylvania—an unprecedented federal act. The city’s current Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) commissioner has called the carefully choreographed city-country symbiosis a “permanent marriage between upstate and downstate.”

But is the relationship in need of therapy? As more malls, roads and subdivisions compromise the big Brita upstate, more New Yorkers install their own filters downstate, while concerns—some say unfounded—about toxic cryptosporidium in the water have prompted the DEP to add roughly 50 percent more chlorine to the system. The city has already spent a billion dollars, and may spend a billion more, building its first filtration plant for the heavily degraded Croton watershed which supplies ten percent of the city supply. New Yorkers now drain three billion water bottles a year and finding a functioning water fountain is like finding a working pay phone. The legendary qualities of New York water, credited for Gotham’s extraordinary bagels, pizza and beer, what Ed Koch called the “champagne” of tap, could be distilled down to just a memory.

II. The world’s longest tunnel

Here’s the hydrology 101 any New Yorker should understand. Look at a map of the state: two big swaths of land north of the city collect water for the five boroughs, one about 50 miles away at 2 on the watch face, the second about 100 miles away at about 11 on the watch face. Think of these expanses as two hearts that sustain the city, and the two massive, underground aqueducts that convey water from these areas as arteries.

New York wasn’t the first city to look to its hinterlands for aqua pura, but it was the first to do it on such a massive scale, and the result is “the world’s oldest continuously running urban water supply,” according to Gerard T. Koeppel’s Water for Gotham, much of it built more than 100 years ago.

The city hasn’t always had good water. Sixteenth century New Yorkers were sustained by wells; the water was brackish and brown, reportedly hard on strangers’ horses and didn’t dissolve soap. Several historians suggest that poor water is one of the reasons New Yorkers have always swilled considerably more alcohol than other Americans. Those who could afford to bought the historical equivalent of Panna from “teawater men” who sold water, ostensibly from nearby springs, for a penny a gallon. (During heavy rains one of these springs, Minneta Brook, still shows up in West Village basements, not far from the Lane that bears its name.)

By the early 1800s, city officials tired of cholera outbreaks and massive fires, both inflamed by the lack of dependable water. “The health of a city depends more on its water than all the rest of the eatables and drinkables put together,” declared Dr. John Browne, one of the first to suggest that the city should look beyond Manhattan Island to quench its thirst.

Which is exactly what it did: for the next two centuries, New York City would insinuate herself into an ever-growing share of its northern hinterlands, buying land where freshwater bubbled from the ground, moving historic buildings and condemning towns to ease the flow of water downstate. “The million people in the city need a reserve of drinking water,” reported Harper’s in 1892, “and twenty-one families must move out of their quiet rural homes and see their hearths sink deep under water.”

Irish, Italian and Portuguese immigrants followed jobs upstate, leaving descendants along the Hudson. Over generations, they erected colossal dams and tunneled through farms, fields and mountainsides, as men with picks, dynamite, bricks and mules gave way to stiff-legged derricks, steam-shovels, hydraulic jack hammers, concrete and steel.

The seething city was thirsty and despite three major watershed projects in rapid succession, New York struggled to keep up with its ever-growing citizenry. Waves of tired masses swelled the population from 400,000 in the 1840s to 1.5 million in the 1870s and 3.5 million by the turn of the century, while water-guzzling technologies like indoor plumbing pushed into more households. “Development, expansion and improvement of the City’s water system has been pretty much non-stop for almost 200 years,” explains Diane Galusha, communications director for the Catskills Watershed Corporation, a local development agency created in 1997 by New York City to help farms, homeowners and businesses in the watershed meet the city’s water-protection regulations, and author of Liquid Assets: A History of New York City’s Water System.

The first major expansion was the damming of the Croton River and construction of the 40-mile  Croton Aqueduct in the late 1830s (including a span that crossed the Harlem River), which emptied into a reservoir that resembled an Egyptian temple at 5th Avenue and 42nd, now the Main Branch of the Public Library. (New Yorkers would call the increasingly ubiquitous cockroach “the Croton bug” thinking it had been introduced through the Croton pipe.)

Underestimated demand would move the city to dam additional branches of the Croton and add a dozen reservoirs, including two in the city: in 1842 the 38-acre Yorkville Receiving Reservoir (now the Great Lawn in Central Park) and in 1862 the 96-acre Lake Manahatta (the largest artificial lake in the world, now the defunct Central Park Reservoir).

Even before this expanded Croton system was completed, city surveyors roamed the Catskills, famed for several companies that shipped bottled water to urbanites. In short order, city officials, often carrying big satchels of cash, would acquire tens of thousands of acres, and the city would build four more reservoirs and an aqueduct twice as long as the Croton line. This new Catskill system would nearly triple the city’s water supply, and would include a tunnel that crossed under the mighty Hudson, burrowed through bedrock 1,114 feet deep. Yet even as the Catskill system was completed in the 1930s, work began on the even larger Delaware system which would again double the city’s water supply.

More and more land upstate was funneling water towards the city—the Croton project drew on 375 square miles, a figure that ballooned to nearly 1,000 square miles with the Catskills expansion and eventually 2,000 square miles by the time of the Delaware project. And as the watershed grew, so did the pipes needed to move this water. The 18-mile City Tunnel #1, the massive underground conduit that is the final connection between upstate water and the city’s pipes, was the longest tunnel in the world upon completion in 1915. It was surpassed in 1933 by the 20-mile long City Tunnel #2 and, in 1945, by the Delaware Aqueduct which, at 84 miles, is still the longest tunnel in the world. (Modern urban miners are rushing to complete City Tunnel #3, the largest capital construction project in the city’s history and a necessary hedge against any disruption—accidental or malicious—to the other two tunnels.)

These heroic efforts sustained the city for 140 years, but by the mid-1980s, the city was again facing crisis, using several hundred million gallons per day more than the system could supply even as extended droughts dropped reservoirs to all-time lows. After a proposed multibillion dollar plan to siphon water out of the Hudson was opposed by budget-conscious politicians and Valley communities alike, the city embarked on a ten-year conservation campaign, fixing leaks, installing meters, and developing better hydrant locks to eliminate spontaneous summertime geysers.

By 1997, the resultant reductions prompted the DEP to boast that “no additional water sources will be necessary for the next 50 years.” A century and a half after its unquenchable search for more water, the city had finally quenched its thirst. But the bigger challenge was managing how the land was used.

III. A sensitive symbiosis

“Farming is very good for the watershed,” asserts Barbara Wilkens, whose family has run Wilkens Orchard and Fir Farm in Westchester since 1916. The 180 acres, planted with about 40 varieties of peaches, plums, pears and apples, and 20,000 Christmas trees, are the closest option for New Yorkers looking to pick their own apples and pumpkins in fall or cut their own tannenbaums come December. It also happens to be just half a mile from the Croton Reservoir. “Farmers are far more responsible, in terms of pesticides, fertilizers and erosion than the general public, who want beautiful lawns and golf courses greened with phosphorus and nitrogen, which contribute to algae in our lakes and reservoirs.” (A recent study has found dozens of common lawn chemicals in streams feeding the city’s watershed.)

Wilkens has seen firsthand what can happen when a farm and city work together for a common purpose—she serves on the board of the 15 year old Watershed Agricultural Council (WAC), one of several organizations created and financed by the city to help farmers preserve their land, upgrade their operations and sell what they grow. Guided by the motto, “good food, clean water”, it works with some 500 farms in 8 counties on both sides of the Hudson. Like the Board of Water Supply which helped replace privies that emptied directly into streams in the early 1900s, WAC has paid to mend fences on Westchester horse farms and to help Dutchess County growers control erosion that might sully a nearby reservoir. It helped a reservoir-bordering livestock farm build an offal-composting facility and a dairy create an award-winning composting barn; in each case, a watershed liability—leaking manure, highly concentrated slaughterhouse waste—became a nontoxic fertilizer. Wilkens herself received funding to replace fuel tanks and install erosion-reducing drainage. In other words, city tax dollars are helping to fund upstate agriculture.

Such symbiosis isn’t that unique. Munich encourages organic farming around its water treatments plants. Japan has long supported terraced rice paddies to reduce flooding and silting of reservoirs. San Salvador encourages coffee farms on its sloped hillsides for the same reason.

What is unique is how New York manages this relationship. In 1994, as the City worked to avoid a federal mandate to filter its Catskill-Delaware water, the agricultural communities around the reservoirs agreed to make watershed protection a workaday priority as long as the city paid for it. The deal united country folk and city folk as few initiatives have. “Everything is kind of knit together,” said Fred Hunecke, a retired dairy farmer who chairs the WAC’s board and went farm-to-farm and kitchen-to-kitchen gathering support from the rural community. He’s since hosted officials from as far away as Australia, China and Brazil, as well as representatives from Native American tribes from Washington State, all of them trying to understand how this agricultural pact that is fully funded by the city, and yet locally controlled and completely voluntary, could be so successful. At last count, 93 percent of farmers in the watershed had committed to conservation programs.

Such participation depends partly on the fact that the city uses more carrot than stick to encourage upstate landowners to minimize practices that could jeopardize the watershed. When a family can’t afford to upgrade their septic system or fix a leaky manure pit, the city is willing to help. “Clean water isn’t free.” said Galusha. “But it’s certainly cheaper to keep it clean at the source.”

Farmers have also been convinced by WAC employees, extension agents and neighbors already participating in the program that the changes they make on the farm will make them more profitable. Pure Catskills, a buy-local campaign run by the WAC, sets up meetings with city restaurants, supermarkets and food distributors all in the name of keeping watershed farms viable. The group finances about 15 events each year, from community suppers to ramp festivals to a monthly Meet-the-Farmer program that invites member restaurants to host participating growers for a $30 meal featuring their crops.

Recently Challey Comer, who heads WAC’s farm-to-market program, brokered a deal with Tribeca-based Bubby’s Pie Company to buy 60 whole cows. “Everyone is talking about the foodshed. But in the case of New York City it’s just as important to think about the watershed,” said Comer.

Of course when it comes to protecting the watershed, not all farms are created equal. For instance, most dairies—the dominant farm type in the region—still feed their cows corn indoors. This concentrates manure and almost guarantees that some polluting nutrients will leak into creeks, streams, rivers and eventually the water supply. Sally Fairbairn is one of a growing number of dairy farmers moving cows out of the barn and back onto pasture. That means less feed-corn fertilizer runoff and fewer manure lagoons. Now her Jersey-Holstein crosses feed on timothy, broomgrass, bluegrass, and native clovers.

“We would frankly like to see more incentives for people who are already doing a clean job at farming,” said Delaware County vegetable farmer Richard Giles. “Incentives go to people who are taking the largest toll on the watershed, not the people already helping it.” The west branch of the Delaware River runs right through Giles’ 160-acre Lucky Dog Farm, which avoids agricultural chemicals and leaves the areas closest to the river fallow. But although Giles uses local manure as compost, he gets no assistance from the DEP. “If I had 100 animals, I could probably get DEP money to truck manure away. But I can’t get their help to get manure to my farm.”

Giles believes that if city restaurants and residents are going to fill their pantries with upstate fare, the farms can’t just raise milk and corn. He envisions everything from daikon to duck, from gooseberries to grains. “The interest is huge in the big city,” he said. “And it’s a real intelligent interest.” Baldor, the Bronx-based food distributor, offers over 300 city restaurant, caterer and grocery customers watershed-grown fingerling potatoes, Tri-Star strawberries, and microgreens . “It preserves the farmer’s livelihood,” said Matthew Scott, a Hudson Valley farmer and founder of the local cheese distributor Pampered Cow, which sells through Baldor, “but the land they live and work on and the water they use to make their cheese with.”

Beth Schneider, who apprenticed with Giles, is part of a new crop of farmers who may understand better than their parents and grandparents their allegiance to their neighbors downstream. “My market is New York City,” said Scheider, who had a Manhattan TV career before returning home and now raises vegetables snapped up by weekending city folk. “I notice when school lets out in New York. If it weren’t for the second home owners I wouldn’t have a business.”

IV. A Drop’s Journey

Just outside Pawling, about 50 miles north of Manhattan, there’s a club for people devoted to a 6,000-acre swamp. Nestled in fast-developing Putnam and Dutchess Counties, it’s one of the largest wetlands in the state. Though puny in international terms, The Great Swamp has global cred as one of the major collecting pools that feeds a global metropolis.

When a drop of rain from a nearby roof or road enters the massive red maple floodplain towards the middle of the swamp, the wetlands give it a spa treatment. Soil and other sediment settle out. The carbonate limestone substrate of the swamp—laid down by ocean 440 million years ago, and 1000 feet deep in some places—pull out phosphates, nitrates, oil, road salt, heavy metal, pesticides and other everyday contaminants, while conferring calcium and other minerals that make the water sweet.

This drop flows under arching beech, hickory and hemlock, is sipped by bog turtles, big river crayfish, showy mosses and lichen, violet dancer damselflies, brook trout, muskrat, otter, and woodcock. It witnesses solitary sandpipers, scarlet tanagers and other tropical birds that stop on their spawning flight to the North Pole. It water washes kayaks in summer and tracks of hunters and skiers in winter. (Governor Pataki canoed the swamp and was awed by the “marvelous resource.”

Leaving the swamp, the drop travels the 33-mile long Croton Aqueduct to the Jerome Park Reservoir in the Bronx and makes the 9-mile journey to the 135th Street Gatehouse in Manhattan before dipping below ground into City Tunnel #1 to water mains, fire hydrants, water fountains, and kitchen sinks throughout the five boroughs.

In a year or so, drops will take a detour. To the chagrin of locals and activists farther upstream, the city has recently commandeered a 10 acre chunk of Van Cortlandt Park where it is completing the city’s first filtration plant. Some locals, including environmental activist Edie Keasbey, a longtime Manhattanite who now lives in Patterson and was a founding member of the Friends of the Great Swamp, suggest this filtration plant will be a green light to ever more real-estate development. Without the swamp, says Keasbey, “you’re going to spend billions filtering closer to the city, and it will never be as good. It’s an amazing thing the swamp does for nothing.”

V. NEW YORK’S FINEST

Perhaps it’s this delicately choreographed country-city symbiosis that breeds such strong opinions about New York water. When Steve Ross of the Coney Island Bialy and Bagel Bakery made those New York specialties at the 2001 Smithsonian Institute Folklife Festival in Washington, DC, he brought 36 gallons of New York’s finest. And when Goodfella’s Restaurant on Staten Island took first prize in the 2007 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas for their Smokin’ Goodfella (made with a blend of smoked cheeses, roasted peppers and sweet Italian sausage) they also hauled in their hometown aqua pura. (This was the fourth time they won the competition; although the toppings changed, the water remained the same.)

But interviews with bakers, brewers and food chemists indicate that Gotham’s tap can’t take credit for the quality of bagels or pizza. “Water is unlikely to be a major factor compared to flour quality and bakers’ skill and competition and consumers’ demanding standards,” wrote food chemist Harold McGee in an email. “NYC water is just not that different from most municipal waters.”

“If you’re a proper baker, you can make bread with any water available,” said Sim Caas, the baker who founded Balthazaar in 1989. He’s even conducted — unintentionally — some comparative studies, since he now bakes his signature rye rounds at Balthazaar’s facility in Englewood, New Jersey, using Garden State tap that contains more chlorine and more contaminants that need to be filtered. He asserts an expert taster wouldn’t tell the difference.

Even if the water doesn’t affect the taste of baked goods, several bakers acknowledge that the relatively neutral pH of the city’s water means that, compared to dough made with more alkaline water, dough bearing New York water better lends itself to kneading, including large-scale automated kneading that the bagel and pizza industries depend on.

Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery was thinking of “l’eau-oir,” his play on terroir, the term for the way in which a food bears the imprint of the place where it was grown (“New York’s water is juicy with notes of clove and a hint of benzene,” he grins) when he developed his now-famous no-knead recipes. “I was looking for a consistent method that could work in Timbuktu, Tokyo and Tacoma, because the water varies,” he said, adding that he’s working on a no-knead cookbook that includes an “incredibly tasty and not too salty” bread made with seawater scooped up at Jones Beach.

Lahey acknowledged that too much chlorine or fluorine would leave an aftertaste and could hamper yeast growth. But dough that he made years ago with “really rusty water” caused by an eroding city water main baked into perfectly good bread, “even though I felt like it shouldn’t.”

Several brewers, coffee roasters and tea experts argue that, even if the flavor isn’t noticeable in the final product, Gotham tap is special. Daniel Humphries, founder of the New York Coffee Society, which hosts regular cuppings for New Yorkers who seek to savor the subtle differences between Ethiopian Longberry and Guatemala Antigua, attests that even the relatively small amount of chlorine added to the city’s water is “screamingly obvious” and needs to be removed before serious brewing. “It’s pretty absurd when a restaurant or coffee shop is spending $11,000 on a handbuilt espresso machine and doesn’t invest in their water.”

Humphries asserts that New York’s minimally treated tap is superior to many other cities’: “Some of the 800 chemicals in coffee will not be expressed if there are no minerals in the water.”

“It’s very good water to brew with,” agrees Kelly Taylor, master brewer at Heartland Brewery in Manhattan and Kelso and Greenpoint Beerworks in Brooklyn. “It’s a good blank slate for fermentation.” He’s made beer in San Diego and Seattle but this is the best brewing water he’s encountered. “In San Diego they would kill for this sort of water supply.” (In the 1700s New York brewers were one of the main groups petitioning the city to improve its water, arguing that the foul water was costing them market share to beer hauled up from Philadelphia.)

Taylor preheats his brewing water overnight to volitalize chlorine but otherwise doesn’t mess with it. “As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “the more you have to treat your water before you brew with it, the more you’re going to come up with a poor product.”

He was dismayed to learn that the Croton aqueduct will soon be filtered. “It’s going to be more generic. It will taste a little thinner. Less nuanced,” he said. “You end up filtering out bad as well as good stuff.” Because yeast will behave differently, he’ll need to tweak his recipes. “It’s just big money driving golf courses and condos and development–that doesn’t need to happen.”

VI. (KICKING THE) BOTTLE HABIT

It seems New Yorkers are taking tap seriously.

Last year, hundreds of city restaurants helped launch the Tap Project, which raised money for water initiatives around the globe (a billion people worldwide lack this basic need) by asking customers to donate $1 for the water they normally enjoy for free. This coincided with the city’s own $700,000 Get Your Fill campaign, jointly run by the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health. Mayor Bloomberg himself was seen cradling one of the many plastic blue bottles handed out with the hopes that they will become everyday accessories of tapwater toting New Yorkers. (And the mayor is close to canceling city contracts with bottled water purveyors.) And in July, when the American Museum of Natural History held its 22nd annual water tasting competition, “a fun and nonscientific event” that offers water samples from five locations in the city’s system, officials ran out of Dixie cups in record time.

But other citizens are riding a global tide away from tap. Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania, got interested in the nation’s addiction to suckling plastic because she wanted to know what she was getting out of her own Brooklyn faucet. She’d heard that the chlorine added to most municipal water systems—and the only sort of “purification” that New York’s water is subjected to—combines with traces of organic matter in the water supply to create cancer-causing compounds. (It’s true, although New York has among the lowest levels of any big city.) She also learned that tap water is considerably more likely to be safe than bottled water, so she’s taking the debate to the streets—in the form of more public drinking fountains, from Midtown to Harlem. She’s happy that the Parks Department, tired of picking up empty plastic bottles, is adding more.

It’s no wonder the Parks Department is weary of the bottles. The Container Recycling Institute estimated that 2,937,000,000 bottles of non-sparkling water were sold in New York City last year, nearly all of them plastic. That’s almost 200 bottles per year for every man, woman and child, and about two thirds of all plastic beverage containers sold in the state. Stacked end to end, the bottles New Yorkers discard each year would reach the moon. And it ain’t cheap – getting your 8 glasses a day would cost about $1,400. Out of the tap, it would cost 49 cents a year.

Back before Perrier, Evian and San Pelligrino, New Yorkers drank seltzer, but it was generally made from tap water. Gomberg Seltzer, which delivers 3,000 glass 26-ounce bottles of seltzer a week, triple-filters tap through sand, charcoal and paper, chills it—since cold water absorbs more carbon dioxide—then pumps it into a carbonator.

Gomberg has seen business jump in recent years, partly due to nostalgia, but also because people are watching their hydrological footprint. As the public sours on bottled water, restaurant consultant Clark Wolf likes the fact that he hears more and more waiters proudly offering tap its euphemism: iced water.

“Bottled water is a farce,” Il Buco owner Donna Lennard told the Wall Street Journal when its writer sampled the restaurant’s free and “slippery, soft” tap water, carbon-filtered on site. “You have no idea of its true source. And when you take into account how much damage is done just making and transporting these bottles, it’s incredible.” The restaurant has stopped selling bottled water altogether, as have San Domenico, Bobo, Gusto Organics, Angelica Kitchen, Jimmy’s No. 43, Pure Food & Wine, and Broadway East, to name just a few. The Odeon has placed a carafe on every table since 1980, although they don’t like to comment on it. “It’s fucking city tap water,” a manager gruffed. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”

Others are a bit more finicky. Del Posto has given up imported water, but not for New York tap. The restaurant serves water from a New Jersey spring, put through a cellulose-fiber filter, then a carbon filter, heated to 170 degrees for ten minutes and fortified with a blend of calcium, magnesium, and other minerals developed over three months of taste tests to mimic that of European mineral water. It’s put into kegs at the High Point Brewing Company, trucked to the restaurant and sold in reusable carafes for $6 a bottle.

At Gemma Restaurant in the Bowery Hotel, waiters offer still, sparkling or tap, all filtered, carbonated and bottled on site. “Our servers explain that the decision saves oil, reduces plastic and glass use and cuts down on trash,” said general manager Eric Rosenfeld. The tap (triple carbon filtered) comes in recycled wine bottles. The still (reverse osmosis) and sparkling (carbon filtered since reverse-osmosis water doesn’t have enough minerals for bubbles to adhere to) come in custom glass bottles bearing the words purisima and frizzante.

“It’s a trend that’s about to blow up,” Rosenfeld said. “People are starting to think about the impact of their beverages. The North Fork and the Finger Lakes wine regions are exciting partly for this reason. If I can use something from nearby, that’s another reason I’m interested.”

A leading provider of restaurant filters is Natura Water, the company that dominates the Italian market and whose New York sales have doubled in the last six months. (Brita has reported double-digit growth for years.) Natura filters, which rent for $400 per month and dispense flat and carbonated water, are in place at San Domenico, Gotham Bar and Grill, the Asiate at the Mandarin Oriental, and dozens of others.

“It’s wonderful water, but it’s chlorinated,” said Natura managing director Tim Gaglio, of city tap. “Chlorine is not a flavor that goes well with food.” The Natura system claims to remove 99 percent of toxins, but leaves in the minerals that give water its unique signature. Gaglio looks at bottled water in horror. “The Pellegrino you drink today was bottled about 8 months ago. It’s filled with salt for preservatives.”

Still other restaurants, like Back Forty and Market Table, think such purification is much ado about nothing and have noticed more customers electing for plain old tap. “It tastes good to me,” said Market Table chef Mikey Price. “I always figured that all our shit flowed down to New Jersey.” (The five boroughs do flush more than one billion gallons of sewage each day, some of which is treated in New Jersey facilities.)

“What’s important for me is that nothing detracts from the beauty of the meal,” said Bret Csencsitz, general manager at Gotham Bar & Grill. “So if you have a glass of water that has an off flavor that’s going to pierce that bubble of your experience. It’s the same issue you can have with butter. If it’s not stored properly, you get a stale, refrigerated flavor, and that ruins the bread.”

The restaurant started rethinking water a year ago when metallic residue from old city pipes left persistent streaks on their glasses. Water then became part of a broader “staff-initiated greening effort” that included delivering daily specials verbally rather than reprinting the menu every day, auditing their energy use, and switching from Fiji water (in plastic bottles from far away) to Saratoga springs (glass bottles from nearby). They are experimenting with a Natura system, and are very happy with the flavor, although they aren’t yet comfortable charging for the water. And they are still working out the logistical kinks of shifting from pitchers that were refilled by staff at multiple stations to Natura bottles that are centrally filled. Not to mention that their ice is still made with unfiltered water. “The whole New American cuisine movement is all about the ingredients,” said Czensitz, who orders tap water when he eats out. “And water is a huge ingredient.”

VII. Enter the watershed

Drinking fountains are the most public appendage of public water; they used to be public art, too. In Central Park at 72nd Street, the neoclassical bronze Bethesda Water Fountain, topped with its 8-foot angel, was erected in the 1870s to commemorate the arrival of the Croton water supply, and at the end of a 5-mile-long parade, giddy New Yorkers took ceremonial sips from the basin. Temperance fountains, with attached bronze ladles, proliferated during Prohibition. Filigreed fountains flourished during Gilded Age fits of charity. The Sophe Loeb Fountain, widely known as the Alice in Wonderland Fountain at Fifth Avenue and 77th Street, has become a popular setting for storytelling, although no one drinks from it any more. In 2000, the Central Park Conservancy gave $100,000 to retrofit five existing fountains into dog drinking fountains.

Sit on a park bench and watch who comes to catch the arch of water emerging from the 1920s-era concrete birdbath-style drinking fountains with the metal button in the center and you will see New York in all its gentrification-defying splendor. A father holds a daughter up for a sip. A homeless woman cleanses her face and hands and fills several bottles. Runners are frequent patrons. As are bowl-toting dog owners. Every visitor to the fountain leaves refreshed, purified, renewed.

The challenge, as with so many ubiquitous things we can’t do without, is that water is still easy to take for granted. Like the petroleum that flows from gas pumps or the power we suck from electrical outlets, water appears at our taps, at our shower heads, in our toilet tanks as if by magic. But in this age of food activism, in which Americans consider their shopping lists a tool for all kinds of social change, it’s not that great a stretch to consider water for the same reasons. New York’s water is a product of the landscape, the economy, and the municipal decisions that surround the city.

More and more people realize this. Last year, 6 students from Sidney High School in Delaware County and 6 students from New York Harbor School in Brooklyn, shared a 3 week, 100-mile “Mountain Top to Tap Trek” that started in the high peaks of the Catskills and continued by foot, bike, innertube and row boat along the Esopus Creek, past the Ashokan Reservoir, and along the Old Croton Aqueduct into Central Park where the students filled their canteens. Along the way, the children met farmers, politicians, historians and hydrologists. They journaled, posted photodiaries online, and hopefully became better environmental stewards. The city invests heavily in such solidarity, including grants to schools and nonprofits, to take country kids down south to see where the water ends up and city kids travel north to help plant trees along streambeds.

“They see with their eyes where their water comes from and they understand why you don’t let the water run when you brush your teeth,” said Galusha of the Catskills Watershed Corporation. Beth Schneider, the TV industry refugee turned organic farmer, hosts frequent visits from local school districts. “We explain to kids why you want to eat this tomato instead of the one in the grocery store. We show them how to plant seedlings. We show them why farms are good for the water we drink. We’ve got to start with the little ones.”

The more young New Yorkers who come to care about the watershed the better, since the system faces no shortage of coming challenges. Climate change brings more intense storms which wash sediment into reservoirs, while rising temperatures weaken filtering forests and wetlands. This year’s state budget cuts halved funding for watershed projects. Towns on both sides of the river are opposing city purchase of lands, concerned that it would cost the jobs that come with real estate development.  And some country residents, perhaps channeling generations of animosity for a less tactful time, still wonder if the city wastes too much water and doesn’t pay enough for it. State budget cuts have already halved the money for water-related programs, while several energy companies—defied by just one vocal city councilman—are lobbying to drill for natural gas among those same pristine reservoirs the city is trying to protect.

“No question, there are issues,” said Hunecke, the dairy farmer, who helped broker the decade old agreement between upstream and downstream. But he remains optimistic.

“This may be a little pie in the sky I guess,” he said. “But if you consider that nationwide, out west, and around the world, the availability of clean potable water is going to be critical and if you consider that competition between agriculture and development for water is sometimes huge, the fact is that in New York, we have good water and we have a lot of it. All we have to do is maintain it.”

Photos: Stephen Munshin, New York City Department of Environmental Protection, Princeton Architectural Press

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Brian is the editor at large of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.