What is a watershed?

Image: NYC Department of Environmental Protection’s official map of the NYC Water Supply System.

Physically, a watershed is a drainage area (gravity!) If you pour water down the sides of a salad bowl, water collects in the bottom. Now superimpose a hilly landscape on that salad bowl and you’ve got a watershed! The NYC drinking water system contains 3 separate watersheds: the Croton, the Catskills, and the Delaware.

Socially, a watershed connects all living things within it. It produces a public by nature of its geography, but also by law. And because watersheds, water systems, and water bodies can be expansive, so are the publics they create.

The NYC watershed is shaped by infrastructure. It’s controlled by environmental policy and land use regulation. It connects geographically and culturally distinct communities, whose relationship is negotiated through agreements, regulation, legislation, and law suits. This relationship is contradictory, it’s both symbiotic and parasitic.

A water system is both a hegemony and a commons.

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