When European explorers first landed on the shores of what is now known as Manhattan, they relied on shallow wells under private ownership to obtain water. For over a century, this was how early settlers got water for bathing, cooking and cleaning, but all that changed in the late 17th century, when the fort at Bowling Green became the site of the area’s first public well.
As the city’s population boomed, a new solution was necessary. In 1776, a reservoir was built between White and Pearl Streets on Broadway’s eastern side, and water pumped from the nearby ponds and wells was distributed through the streets using hollow logs. Another sunken well was constructed in 1800 by the Manhattan Company at Centre and Reade Streets, with the water being pumped via wooden mains to the surrounding community. In 1830, iron pipes were first used to distribute well water, but the city’s continually growing population demanded yet another, more advanced solution.
After exploring different options, the city chose to obtain water from the nearby Croton River and to construct an aqueduct to transport water from Westchester County into New York City. Now called the Old Croton Aqueduct, the facility was first used in 1842 and could carry approximately 90 million gallons of water each day. Distribution reservoirs were constructed in the subsequent eight decades to increase water supply in the city, and a second aqueduct was built at Croton to answer the increasing demand for water. These reservoirs and aqueducts laid the foundation for New York City’s present water system, which was consolidated from the systems stemming from each of the five boroughs.
The Board of Water Supply was founded in 1905 and approved the development of additional water sources in the Catskill region. Facilities were constructed around Esopus Creek, including the Catskill Aqueduct and the Ashokan Reservoir, and the project was completed in 1915.
In 1928, approval was given to the Board of Water Supply to develop the Delaware River’s tributaries and the Rondout watershed’s upper portion within the state. Although work was delayed for three years due to disapproval by the State of New Jersey, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1931 that New York City could indeed obtain waters from the Delaware River. Construction on the new project began in the spring of 1937 and was completed with the building of the Cannonsville Reservoir in 1964.
These water systems were designed to exchange water from one system to another, increasing flexibility and mitigating the effects of localized droughts while efficiently using excess water in the watersheds. The water system remains one of the finest in the nation, and nearly 95% of the city’s supply reaches consumers by gravity. Only 5% is pumped, resulting in operating costs that are generally not tied to changes in the cost of power.