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Faculty member publishes book on New York City's 'Empire of Water'

August 12, 2013
David Soll, an assistant professor in the Watershed Institute for Collaborative Environmental Studies.

EAU CLAIRE — Dr. David Soll, an assistant professor in the Watershed Institute for Collaborative Environmental Studies at the University of
Wisconsin-Eau Claire, has recently published a new book, titled "Empire of Water: An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply," published by Cornell University Press. The book details the history of New York City's water system and how communities and government came together to create a unique and innovative system.

Soll said his desire to study New York City's water system stemmed from a few different areas, including a family connection to the area and an interest in New York's uniquely designed system.

"I was born in New York and lived there until I was seven years old and still have family in the area," Soll said. "New York is also one of a handful of municipal water systems in the United States that does not filter its water. Most of the other ones are in the western part of the country and their watersheds are largely uninhabited and consist mostly of national forests and other federally owned property. In New York's case, the landscape is a living watershed, which means there are many villages, towns and farms, making it much more difficult to control pollution that could potentially contaminate the water supply. This aspect made New York a really interesting case to study."

Soll said the other unique aspect of New York's water system is the extensive partnerships the city established with community organizations and individuals in its main watershed, the Catskill Mountains, to help prevent pollution, and thereby allow the city to forego the very high expense of constructing a filtration plant, which would have cost around $10 billion.

"The city expected to be able to approach the watershed protection in a traditional command-and-control style of environmental protection in which affected parties must comply with regulations written by bureaucrats," Soll said. "However, this proved impossible due to the resistance of Catskill residents. These people, many of whom had relatives whose farms or businesses were destroyed to make way for the six large reservoirs that New York built in the region, quickly realized that the very restrictive regulations proposed by New York would likely devastate the region's economy."

The residents' resistance eventually led to negotiations that concluded with the creation of the 1997 Watershed Memorandum of Agreement, which called for a cooperative approach to environmental regulations, Soll said.

"The guiding principle was for the city and watershed residents to work together to prevent pollution to ensure that the city would not have to incur the enormous expense of building a filtration plant," Soll said.

Soll began researching his book in late 2005 and said he found it difficult to access certain documents and records when the Department of Environmental Protection, the agency that operates the city's water system, refused to grant him access to the archives because of security concerns related to Sept. 11.

"This was enormously frustrating," Soll said. "Not only because I was deprived access to the material I needed, but also because the material wasn't catalogued, so I never even had an opportunity to discover what exactly I was missing."

With access to the archives denied, Soll said he focused on alternative means to gather research on the water system.

"I had the great fortune of being able to interview many people who had some connection to the water system," Soll said. "The final two chapters of the book focus on developments in the last two decades, which enabled me to make oral interviews a key part of the research process. In addition, there were other people who were interested in the topic and who had done a set of interviews with a dozen or so people who played key roles in shaping the landmark Watershed Memorandum of Agreement."

Soll said the most interesting and unexpected aspects of his research concerned the "byproducts" of the water system.

"One example of a byproduct I focused on in the book is the main building of the New York Public Library located at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan," Soll said. "A reservoir for the city's first municipal system, known as the Croton System, was located on the site from the early 1840s to 1890s. When the city expanded the water system, it no longer needed the reservoir, so it was razed to make way for the library. The library is only one instance of what I call the 'recycling of infrastructure.' Others include the Old Croton Trail, which runs through much of Westchester County, and several parks and pools in New York City. The basic idea here is that the continuous expansion of the water system enabled the city to redeploy these old pieces of water system infrastructure for new uses."

Soll began his career in UW-Eau Claire's Watershed Institute in fall 2012, but his interest in environmental issues began while he was in college.

"It didn't occur to me to pursue a career in environmental issues because I wasn't scientifically inclined and my university didn't have an environmental studies program of the sort we're developing at UW-Eau Claire, so it remained something I pursued outside of my professional career," Soll said. "I majored in history as an undergraduate and began to realize that the emerging academic discipline of environmental history would allow me to combine my long-standing love of history with my budding interest in environment."

Soll said he was attracted to specifically studying water partly because it is so intimately connected to politics.

"I have a master's degree in government and I've always been a bit of a political junkie, so water was a natural fit for me," Soll said. "I soon discovered that writing about water inevitably means writing about many other environmental topics because it tends to be closely connected to landscapes and pollution. This was appealing because it gave me a wider perspective on environmental issues."

Soll said he didn't know he would become a "water guy" when he started his doctoral work, but that's what he's become.

"I look forward to sharing this interest with UW-Eau Claire students in a course I'll be offering this spring, called 'Water Problems, Water Solutions,'" Soll said. "I really like the enthusiasm that most of my students bring to the classroom. They are eager to connect what they're learning with their desire to make the world a better place. This encourages me to devise assignments that will get them out of the classroom to work on projects that enable them to apply what they've learned in creative ways."

For more information on Dr. David Soll's book, titled "Empire of Water: An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply," contact him at or 715-836-5909.




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