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Students at the MCS Farm Examine History of NYC's Water System

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Manhattan Country School Farm sits in a steep, narrow valley, or hollow, in the Catskill Mountains. At an elevation of 1,700 feet, the rainfall, natural spring runoff and snowmelt flow into two mountain streams. Many years ago, New York City took advantage of the pristine water source of the Catskills and damned several rivers to create reservoirs of drinking water for its residents. The water from the streams flowing through the MCS Farm property finds its way to the Pepacton Reservoir. The Pepacton, with a capacity of 140 billion gallons, is the Catskills largest.

Pepacton Reservoir

The MCS eighth-grade class is spending the school year examining the complex history and environmental sustainability of the New York City water system. The students have taken water samples from various spots along the Farm’s streams to measure levels of dissolved oxygen, phosphorus, nitrogen, turbidity and ph levels. In addition to studying natural and human impacts on water quality, they have also investigated the MCS Farm’s agricultural practices in protecting this precious resource. Preventing farm animals from walking through and drinking directly from a stream is one clear example. The covered compost barn is our way of maintaining our nutrient rich compost and preventing nitrogen from leaching into the stream.

Catskills Water Study

During their winter trip, the eighth grade students from Sur homeroom traveled from the Farm, along the east branch of the Delaware River to the Pepacton Reservoir. The opportunity to view the water, even from a vehicle window, provided rich context. This same water that flows from mountain top and through farmland and villages will eventually pour out of faucets and toilets at West 85th Street and the homes of families in the MCS community. During the drive, the kids discovered that when the dam was built, a large valley was flooded, displacing residents of four Catskill Mountain towns. By use of eminent domain, New York City removed all evidence, except for some signs, of the existence of Arena, Pepacton, Shavertown and Union Grove. On a hillside near the lake the students inspected the scientific instruments the Department of Environmental Protection uses to study water and atmospheric quality.

Catskills Water Study


Sitting on a bench above the Shavertown Bridge, the midway point of the 15-mile-long lake, the kids took in the stunning scenery. Viewing the ice-covered water that provides unfiltered water for millions is a dizzying concept. Recognizing their own relationship, as both protectors of the water at the MCS Farm and consumers as residents of the five boroughs, is staggering.