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Photo by Kaldoon via
Unlike energy, there are no alternative sources for water. Although it is provided by nature, water is a “renewable” resource, our supplies of fresh water are overtaxed in many regions. It is not only important to conserve water by reducing use, but to protect our precious water supplies that are increasingly threatened by development and human activities. This is a matter for public policy – government action at local, state, national and international levels.

New York City has an enormous and wonderful water supply system that supplies high quality drinking water to residents and businesses in the city. The system is the envy of most other municipalities, as is the quality of drinking water. This system brings water from outside the city, and was developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. As New York and its water demands grew, the water supply system was expanded to bring more water from further away; eventually from regions of the Catskill Mountains, upstate and across the Hudson River -- a rural and agricultural region. The technical challenges were enormous, but were overcome with innovative engineering.

In the late 20th century, a serious threat to New York’s water supply emerged that defied any technical solution. As development had increased in the rural watershed areas, and farming methods were industrialized, pollution patterns changed. All the dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, pumps and tunnels that were in place would be useless if there was no clean water to carry to the city. Adding facilities to purify and filter the entire water supply would double New York’s water and sewer rates, and have serious environmental consequences.

The problem was local – to New York City – but the solution was regional, involving people, businesses, and communities scores of miles away. Effective watershed management requires effective land-use control. New York City’s proposed regulations on rural farms and homes met with bitter opposition from the agricultural community, fearing they were designed to drive them out of business and allow the city to buy their land cheaply; so the regulatory approach was abandoned.

catskills aqueduct catskills aqueduct 2
Construction of Catskills Aqueduct
© Timothy J. Mallery, Catskills Archive

New York’s state government intervened and proposed a working partnership between farmers and the city, recognizing that agriculture was an inherently watershed-friendly land use, and that the city, the environment and agriculture had fundamentally common interests. The agricultural community proposed a voluntary program of pollution control. Not a set of fixed solutions, the program allows each farm a customized pollution control program developed with help from local farm experts. Each plan would ensure economic benefits to the farmer as well as relief from outside regulation, and reduce that farm’s contribution to regional pollution.

catskills farm
A farm in the Catskills region
Beginning with ten farms, the Whole Farm Agreement has grown to include 93% of the farms in the watershed. It has expanded to include many other cooperative farm-friendly programs such as forest management and local farm marketing. Today this program is known internationally as a model of successful urban/rural partnerships in reducing pollution, and for its contributions to the maintenance of a viable agricultural landscape in a time when agricultural communities are in decline.

This successful watershed protection effort has allowed New York City, so far, to remain one of the very few American cities that does not filter its water supply – a huge savings in construction costs, energy and resources.

kensico resovoir
Kensico reservoir and dam, a part of the New York City
water supply system
Photo by The City of New York 
As always, demand reduction was also a very important strategy in solving New York’s water problems. A very aggressive campaign of water-saving, including fixing leaky water mains and installing water-saving toilets, saves billions of gallons of water annually, and eliminated the need for the water system to be expanded yet again by drawing and purifying unclean water from the Hudson River.

New York City’s story is an example of how society can work to solve resource and environmental problems cooperatively and effectively. Limited resources are now dedicated to repairing and upgrading the existing water supply system, and not expanding it. Future water conservation measures will keep water supply and demand in balance, as the supply remains fixed.

Adapted from Water-Works, the Architecture and Engineering of the New York City Water Supply, Kevin Bone, Editor