A Drop of Water

Walking along Newark’s Pequannock Aqueduct from source, to tap, to sewer

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The general public views rural, suburban, urban, and industrial areas as being separate with different land uses, populations, and landscapes. The rural reaches and forests of northwestern New Jersey exist outside the imagination of Newark residents, as if these green mountain lakes with WASPy names have nothing to do with their lived urban experiences in the concrete and asphalt jungle. For the suburban and rural residents of West Milford, Ringwood, Wanaque, Bloomingdale, Kinnelon, Rockaway, Jefferson, Hardyston, and Vernon where Newark’s water supply originates, the experiences and troubles of Newark seem similarly distant, as if the quality of their forest oasis has nothing to do with the health outcomes of Newark residents. However, Newark’s century-old system supplies a half million people with some of the cleanest water in the country and invisibly knits together the fates of diverse communities along its buried path.

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Handmade drawing of Newark’s Pequannock water supply system, dated December 1892
The red line traces the path of the aqueduct from start at the Macopin Intake to end at South Orange Avenue. Green is the area of the watershed. The red graph beneath charts the relative height of the aqueduct above sea level at each point in the route. The aqueduct does not flow in a continuous downhill slope. Rather it hugs the ground just below the surface.

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Map of Newark water supply system in 1946, showing the Pequannock system opened 1892 (lower left) and Wanaque system opened 1930 (upper left). View full size map from Newark Public Library website.

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Over winter 2021, I documented the route of the Newark aqueduct from its origins in West Milford Township to its terminus in Newark Bay. I trace the path of Newark’s 26-mile-long aqueduct and 63-square-mile Pequannock Watershed and 94-square-mile Wanaque Watershed on the interactive map below.

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Click on water features to display details of name, dimensions, or volume.

■   Watersheds
■   Reservoirs (7 total)
~~ Aqueducts (~55 miles total)

■   Towns supplied with Newark water (~10)
■   Towns relying on Newark sewers (48)
~~ Main sewer interceptor (~ 28 miles total)
      Along path of Passaic River from Paterson to New York Harbor via Newark

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When American cities started gathering millions of woodland acres and building hundreds of miles of aqueducts in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, water supply was an expensive undertaking and a point of civic pride. The opening of New York’s first water supply of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842 was the largest and most expensive project by a single city in American history. Exactly ten years earlier, New York City suffered its deadliest cholera epidemic due to poor sanitation and foul water, which left 3,515 dead out of a population of 250,000. (The equivalent death toll in today’s city of eight million would exceed 100,000.) With recent memories of death and trauma on New Yorkers’ minds, the opening of the city’s water supply was a public holiday with parades the length of lower Broadway and a giant fountain erected in front of City Hall. Along the new aqueduct’s path, brick and granite gatehouses, stone markers, and aqueducts modeled after those of Rome and antiquity advertised the otherwise invisible presence of the investments made below. Many of the sites along the route became tourist attractions in their own right with the weekend carriage crowd riding uptown to the future sites of Central Park and the New York Public Library. There they soaked in nature and appreciated the austere beauty of towering dams and powerful gates that released water downstream.
With similar fears of industrial contamination and water-borne disease, Newark’s water supply opened decades later in 1892. Like New York City, Newark was suffering from bouts of cholera for decades. Manufacturers in the “silk city” of Paterson upstream polluted Newark’s water supply downstream on the Passaic River. Unwilling and unable to invest in cleaner supplies from distant locations as New York City had done decades earlier, Newark suffered 107 typhoid deaths per 100,000 people in 1890. Fearing future death and predicting massive population growth, Newark leaders and industrialists (among them the city’s dozens of beer brewers who needed clean water) demanded change. At the cost of six million dollars, building a clean water supply at the Pequannock Watershed was the largest and most expensive project in Newark history, more than two times the size of the city’s 2.5 million dollar annual budget. Like the Croton system designed for one million customers when Manhattan had only had 330,000, Newark’s Pequannock water supply was designed for over 500,000 customers in a city of only 250,000. The Wanaque System was added by 1930 at a cost of 25 million, more than doubling the water available to Newark. Along the path, brick gatehouses and buildings dressed as neoclassical villas guided the flow of water. The image of Newark’s water supply is, therefore, as much a reflection of where the city was as a prediction of what the city would become. The external ornament and attention to quality materials invested in Newark’s water in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reveal the novelty of the technology, and the fact that for centuries Americans could not take clean water for granted.
After the September 11 attacks, and even for decades earlier, the presence of sensitive water supply infrastructure is no longer openly advertised. The razor wire perimeter fencing and warning signs that now surround Newark’s water supply hint at society’s evolving relationship with the land. The architecture once designed to welcome visitors is now closed off and patrolled by guards and security cameras for fear that people would poison their own water. Swimming and powered motorboats are both prohibited in Newark’s watershed for fear of pathogens and oil slick seeping into drinking water. The aboveground features of the underground aqueducts are no longer proudly labeled with carved stone, as they would have been when the system first opened. The public assets that once belonged to society at large still belong to the public, but their existence is now opaque and hidden away for its own safety. The six billion dollars and fifty years New York City spent building “Water Tunnel No. 3” has no visible fingerprints aboveground even though it is the largest water infrastructure project in American urban history. The public passes by unaware of how their tax dollars are spent behind the unmarked bombproof and airtight doors that guard the water tunnels carved 500 feet below. Newark is little different.

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April 1892 plans of the Macopin Gatehouse. The original water supply to Newark was so clean that the water was unfiltered. As water quality standards increased and as runoff from new suburban development encroached on the watershed, this gatehouse was demolished for the water treatment facility now here.

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Humanizing the 2,000 square mile watershed and aqueduct system that provides nine million New Yorkers with the cleanest water in America, architectural photographer Stanley Greenberg writes in Waterworks: A Photographic Journey through New York’s Hidden Water System:
Soon I came to think of the system as an underground organism, like the giant fungus now regarded as the largest living thing on earth. [….] Eventually I became able to ‘sense’ the water system. Sometimes it was because of the way the road was paved, or the type of fencing along the roadway. I knew which buildings were part of the water system, whether or not they were marked.
Along the path of Newark’s aqueduct, features are still visible aboveground. From little bends in the road to the occasional barbed wire fence, one can “sense” the downward flow of water to Newark. In the lakes and streams of Newark’s watershed, the water supply is left uncovered. The water flows its natural course downstream in the prehistoric riverbed as it has since the Ice Age. At the Macopin Intake in West Milford, the towering mass of a windowless brick building intercepts the pristine river and sucks the water in to be treated, chlorinated, and injected with a cocktail of chemicals. Now sanitized, the water is piped the rest of the way underground. Any new contamination after this point would endanger thousands of lives. Contamination and pollution are existential threats facing any water supply. A few miles further down, the aqueduct skirts under the abandoned location of Nike Missile Site NY-88, an abandoned Cold-War era military installation to intercept nuclear missiles from Communist countries “hostile to American values.” The pair of four-foot diameter brick, iron, and steel conduits snake their way 280 vertical feet downhill at the average rate of about ten vertical feet for each horizontal mile travelled. The water passes beneath roads, golf courses, and green lawns of unsuspecting suburban residents. In some parts, the aqueduct is encapsulated in a raised dirt embankment. Walking along the raised dirt road offers views over fences into the freshly mowed lawns, garages, and children’s swing sets of suburban families unaware that the lifeblood of a half million urban people passes beneath their feet. At the occasional interval, a metal pipe painted green with a mushroom shaped cap points out of the ground. The little green pipes relieve pressure and aerate the water to keep it fresh. Putting one’s ear to the pipe as if it were a stethoscope, the throbbing pulse of flowing water is faintly audible. At other points, a mysteriously vacant but well-maintained lot on a street full of expensive homes hints that something is off. The presence of signs warning of the inexplicably steep $500 fine for illegal dumping and the absence of realtor signs selling this land reveals that something unnamed and important must flow underground. Nearby, occasional road markers are spray-painted blue on the asphalt so that new roadwork does not accidentally puncture the aqueduct when digging. There are at least five streets in different towns all named in honor of what is buried beneath: Pipeline Path in Pompton Lakes, Aqueduct Avenue in Pequannock, Reservoir Drive in Woodland Park, Reservoir Drive in Cedar Grove, and Reservoir Place in Belleville. The aqueduct continues borrowing under Wayne, Totowa, Nutley, Belleville, and a handful of monotone suburbs known to most people only as the names of numbered exits on the highway.
As the water nears its destination, the suburban landscape visibly changes to the empty lots and corner bodegas of inner city Newark. At this point, the main aqueduct gradually narrows as smaller pipes splinter off at each intersection to serve the city’s approximately 30,000 addresses. Finally, at the intersection of South 8th Street and South Orange Avenue, the old aqueduct ends at the “Reservoir Site Townhouse Development.” The name of this privately owned public housing project is the only remaining hint of the former use of this site, where a sloping brownstone embankment once stored nine million gallons of water. Across the street, a three-floor brick water quality testing lab with limestone details has a neoclassical entrance with the words carved above: “Bureau of Water: Meter Laboratory.” The water-testing lab was abandoned and is now a non-governmental community health center. The loss of these public assets, and the neighborhood’s gradual population loss, hints at the larger retreat of government responsibility for protecting the public. While water was once a public asset advertised with civic architecture, the responsibility for water supply – and, with this responsibility, the health of thousands of water customers – is now tasked to semi-private and for-profit agencies that charge higher rates. The name of these water multinationals slip off the tongue and sound like the kind of slick words a team of consultants from the Wharton Business School would dream up: Veolia, Suez, Aqua America, and Aquarion Water. New Jersey, Idaho, and Connecticut, in fact, rank highest in the country for the percentage of their public water supply that is privatized, over 35%.
Running a few feet beneath each water line is the wider pipe of the city sewers. The two systems run in concert with each other, one whisking in fresh water and the other flushing wastewater away sight unseen. Rainwater from city streets mixes with the polluted water of houses and businesses and continues flowing over 230 vertical feet downstream to Newark’s sewage treatment plant in the meadowlands. Over thirty miles from where it entered the system, the water exits the system as it entered it—through the vast and chemical-intensive technologies of water purification. The brown slurry is pumped into basins the shape and depth of a swimming pool, where solid matter settles to the bottom. The remaining water is pumped off into treatment tanks resembling the steel drums used to store vast quantities of propane and natural gas. It is strange that Newark’s facility for water decontamination should be so close to and look so similar to the gas storage tanks of Shell Oil across the street, a company responsible for untold water contamination and environmental destruction. Down the street is the county jail where immigrants and inmates are incarcerated as a source of income for the Essex County government. In a fitting irony, much of the $42.7 million revenue generated from the county jails in 2019 was pumped back upstream to maintain and preserve the county’s hundreds of acres of parks, forests, and mountain lakes. One jail visitor writes: “There’s more drugs in there than on the street. It is located right across the street from a garbage dump. The smell in the air, especially in the summer, is absolutely rancid.” In a fitting twist of fate, the source of Newark’s water supply on a quiet country road with McMansions in West Milford and the destination of this water in an industrial wasteland are both named Doremus Road and Doremus Avenue, respectively, in honor of the Newark mayor responsible for building the system.
Water trickles down from the wealthy bedroom communities of northern New Jersey through progressively less wealthy towns, through the low-income community of Newark, and finally past the jail where society’s weakest members and immigrants are held captive. More than a few of these immigrants, no doubt, lived nearby and commuted out to the affluent suburbs to work on the green lawns and sewer systems whose effluent returns to Newark and which they must now smell in jail. At least 200,000 of these white-collar workers commuted in to Newark pre-pandemic, and extract their wealth from this city. From many of their backyards laced with fertilizers and insecticides, water returns to Newark. As the warning on many a suburban manhole reads: “No Dumping Drains to Waterway.” We live in a society deeply divided on fault lines of income, race, and location. The journey of Newark’s water through diverse communities is a reminder that, however divided and segregated our society, the need and the right to water cuts across lines of class, race, and geography. This ends our journey from rural to urban through the suburban landscape of New Jersey.

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Newark water supply air valves, June 1892

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Related

A history of the Wanaque water supply from the Wanaque Public Library
A history of the Newark water supply from the Newark Public Library
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