Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in town
Sometimes I have a great notion
To jump into the river and drown
—Leadbelly, “Goodnight Irene”
It’s been nine years since the last 500-year flood, which means we’re due for another one in five or ten. Climate change math: the only thing you know for sure is that the numbers are always the wrong order of magnitude.
In the last flood, Irene, I never saw a drop of water. I was high and dry in a second-floor apartment in a neighborhood that got lucky, running an experiment called Let’s Do Local News on the Internet, which had everybody around here pretty skeptical ‘til whole towns started washing away. Overnight, the idea of finding out what was happening before the paper came out next Wednesday began to look a lot more attractive. We spun up a 24-hour live blog, tracked washed-out roads and lists of the missing, and did our damnedest to let the rest of the clueless world know how badly our region had been shattered.
Two hours from civilization, and we might as well have been on the moon. On the Brian Lehrer morning news show, where they patched me in to talk about Prattsville being gone, they were bitching about the subway not running.
The flood before that, in 1996, didn’t have a name. It was freakish warm rain on top of three feet of January snow, and it liquefied the valley. The Batavia Kill behind our house became a sea. We got candles and flashlights, waited for the power to go out, and watched our neighbor’s chest freezer roll end over end through the hay field. I was home from college, and I had pinkeye, so in lieu of more exciting recovery work, they set me to ironing page after page of irreplaceable hand-written ledgers rescued from rising waters at the Margaretville Telephone Company, which kept the locations of all the phone poles.
When the next one hits, I want to be ready, so here I am. It’s September, the bank of the East Branch is heavy with goldenrods and asters, and the night air is still warm enough to be heady. One guy yells out to be careful, the river’s undercutting the bank where they mean to put the strainer into the water. Maybe they’d better find another spot. No, I shout, I can get down there! and scramble down the slick bank like a lizard, along with one of the few other women here. We got it! Hand it down to us! we yell.
I’m brand new on the fire department, I know what none of these parts and valves are called or how they work, and I’m fizzing with the joy of being useful.
The strainer, when it is handed down, proves to be a big perforated tube of steel, locked onto the end of the hose that feeds up the bank and into the chrome-and-glory fire truck waiting above. Heavy as the thing is, the current wants to bend the stiff hose and press the strainer back toward the bank, where it scrapes and bumps in the rocky shallows. We feed it into a deeper eddy, chock it in place with a rock. Useful, by God. Maybe I belong here.
Already a gorgeous monster, the truck is even more magnificent in the green and humid dark, floodlit in triumphant white. When the pump goes on, it makes a huge, thrilling, vibratory sound, the unmistakable sound of important men doing important things. Dials and gauges tremble. The third lieutenant is in charge of running the pump, and he squints at a red LED number display dithering along to the roar of the engine. He’s trying to bring the water pressure up to where the chief wants it. Somewhere in the night, on the other end of the mess of hoses and valves wending through the grass of the riverbank, between the overhanging trees and across Route 28, the water we’re pumping out of the river is leaping in a pretty parabola over the sewer treatment plant. The plant hasn’t caught fire, thank God. We’re doing our annual flow test, for practice, in case it ever does.
That’s the city’s water flowing through our hoses. The city’s sewer plant too, run on the city’s tax dollars, to protect the city’s nine million from the perpetual peril of our shit.
It’s New York City, of course. There isn’t any other city in the world; surely none worth mentioning. We say “the city,” because to say the whole and proper name makes you sound like a tacky fake cowboy in a commercial for salsa, and to say “New York,” like New Yorkers do, is to cede ground that belongs to us, too. We are New Yorkers.
That feels like a technicality, though, a sop to the politically irrelevant. Something Andrew Cuomo might say into a big foam cartoon microphone. So instead, maybe we’ll say we’re from Delaware County, as if that meant anything to anybody; there are too many Delawares just like there are too many New Yorks. We’re from Margaretville, population 560 and falling. We’re from the Catskills, a dark, inchoate place, with no clear boundaries. We’re upstate.
Never mind where we are. If you don’t know the place, it won’t mean anything to you. That’s why people come here, if they weren’t here already. To be nowhere, to get away, to taste that pure elixir.
The water is all the city’s. All the water there is: the river, the wet squelch of the grass, the puddles in potholes, the music of rain rolling off the roof of my old house and landing with a hollow ball-bearing blong on the propane tank in the yard. The land around here for miles is a wrinkled tarp with the Pepacton Reservoir weighing down the bottom of it. 140 billion gallons full to the brim, the Pepacton is the largest and the clearest of the six that filled up the old valleys long ago, and every drop that rolls downhill toward it is spoken for.
Of course the city made it. Of course they did. Only 15 years before the moon landing, and every bit as much of an engineering marvel. People remember; that scab isn’t fully healed yet. They bought what they could, condemned what they couldn’t, moved the graves and dammed up the whole valley. They’re still here. Their lawyers write our laws. They buy more and more of our land every year just so it can lie fallow, so cows won’t shit on it and people won’t build on it. So when it floods, like it does more and more often these days, all that washes down into the reservoirs is trees and rocks and mud, not cars and oil tanks and prizewinning Percherons and the entire contents of the local CVS pharmacy department. The city occupies us. They have their own upstate police force. Where did you think your goddamn water comes from?
In a descendant of the watershed, a full-throated disquisition on this topic is never far beneath the surface.
I have never witnessed anyone deliberately pissing off the Shavertown bridge into the Pepacton, but surely some son of the valley with the blood of drowned Arena in his veins makes a regular religion of it. Never mind. Worse things ended up in there during Irene. The solution to pollution is dilution.
The city is far, far larger than its maps. Beyond the five boroughs’ borders, beyond the thousandfold glittering points of light, beyond the listening ear of the last cell phone tower, lies the resource extraction zone. The poorer we become, the more valuable we are.
The city never stops buying land in the watershed. Year after year, there goes another old farm, another back forty sold off to the DEP. If the city ever stopped buying, the state Department of Health and the federal EPA would force them to build a water purification plant they can’t afford. But ask a local, and you’ll hear the inexorable logic of the paranoiac whose enemies are all too real: the city wants us gone. They’re trying to starve us out, a slow economic war of attrition. Squeeze our towns down into the narrow river valleys, so the floods that grow more wrathful with every generation can sweep them away. Endgame: Depopulation.
Mention any of this to a visiting downstater and watch their brow furrow with confusion. No one wants that. As a topic of concern to your average New Yorker, “people are living in your water supply” doesn’t even crack top ten.
They don’t have to want it. The ecological law of colonization requires no intent. Apply pressure on a critical resource. Watch it eat away at the community, little by little. Shift a variable, watch the landscape change.
Climate change will have winners and losers. The warming world will want more water. We have all we could ever need here, if we can manage to keep from starving, or drowning.
We are all under siege as the world warms: rising seas, rising rivers. The city has a $20 billion resiliency plan, overseen by a growing Office of Climate Policy and Programs. We have the volunteer fire department. Like the village it serves, it’s smaller and grayer than it was.
We drain the hoses and pack up the gear, which is just as much work as setting up for the flow test, and involves more slugs. Me and the other new guy on the department, we’re learning how to work as a pair to uncouple the big ring valves that plumb the hoses into the trucks, one of us holding the heavy metal coupling while the other whales away at it with a mallet. We’re not very good at it at first. We’re getting better.
If I can hack basic fire training, I’ll learn to do swift water rescues. Those who can probably should. At 43, I’m one of the younger ones. It’s long since time I stepped up to volunteer.
When the next flood hits, no one is coming for us.