While water is certainly an emblem of serenity, I often find myself out of breath as I race to spend time with it. In the past few days, I have hustled and bustled to experience New York City’s water, from Central Park’s fabled Bethesda Fountain—which celebrates the purity of the city’s water supply—to the trendy Dumbo beach, one of the sites where the New York City Water Trail Association takes water quality samples.
Through all of this rushing around, I have found that there is often a gap between the mythology of New York’s pristine waters and the reality of its infrastructural failings.
But let me back up for a moment. A few days ago, I raced over to Central Park to view the Bethesda Fountain, which serves as a symbol of New York’s water purity. It was 12 minutes before sunset. An angel with regal wings rises above the fountain, which isdraped with tiers of flowing water. It is a relic of the city’s water history; it was constructed in 1868, and it hails the arrival of clean water to NYC in 1842 and the end of cholera epidemics.
As I gazed up atthe Angel of Water, a violinist in the park played restless notes, and the combination of his music, the sunset, and the soothing sounds of the flowing water set the stage for a romance. I swooned for sure. Water danced gingerly over the fountain’s tiers, seeming to show off for the nearby stagnant pond.
Flash forward to Thursday morning, when I jumped on several express trains to take my first water sample at the Dumbo beach for the New York City Water Trail Association. This was part of an ongoing project to document levels of of enterococci (an indicator of human sewage) in New York’s waterways. Combined sewage overflows (CSOs) continue to plague the city’s rivers, and this project is an effort to provide health and safety information for summer swimmers and boaters (and policymakers).
Taking off my shoes, I waded slightly into the river. It was satisfying to engage with the water for a moment, rather than just watching it from the shore. Even if it was sewage-filled water washing over my feet, it was an exhilarating moment. (There’s a sentence I never thought I would type!) We have more than enough reasons to doubt the purity of New York’s waterways, but when that’s all we think about, we forget to appreciate them, and to make them part of our New York experience.
I would like to inspire more New Yorkers (and people beyond the boroughs) to join me in commemorating water. There are stories of how, in 1842, people celebrated the arrival of clean water in the streets of New York City after the construction of the Croton Aqueduct. Hey, they even rang bells!
How about us now? We are neither celebrating our clean drinking water nor condemning our water infrastructure problems. There may not be the same sense of health urgency now as there was for New Yorkers faced with cholera, but our aging infrastructure has high energy and environmental costs. More of us should take an active interest in appreciating our clean drinking water and calling out water and sanitation problems in our own backyard.
That being said, I encourage you to rush to your nearest waterway or fountain and admire it in an out-of-breath fashion, as well.