Upstate NY: The Water State

I have read many silly things on the Internet in my life, but quite possibly one of the most memorable silly things I’ve ever read was this post at the blog Cato Unbound about a year ago, by Frank Levy, who was discussing RichardFloridian thought and what to do about the Upstate New York Problem. Levy commented:

Some of us here in the MIT city planning department believe that if the Pilgrims had landed in San Diego instead of Plymouth, most of Massachusetts would be a state park. What sane people would have dragged themselves eastward over the Rockies for the pleasure of Massachusetts’ long winters and barren farmland? Instead, the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts and, given the poor transportation of the time, many locations in western Massachusetts and upstate New York looked pretty attractive. Over time, transportation improved and air conditioning meant the South and West could provide tolerable summers as well as the warm winters. Not so good for the Vestals and the Yonkers of the world.

In Levy’s world, history began with the Pilgrims, so we must be left to answer for ourselves why thousands of crazy Native Americans dragged themselves eastward over the Rockies to settle in New York, Massachusetts and other locales. What was here that they could have possibly wanted?

Meanwhile, the Toronto Sun wonders: Could climate change herald mass migration?

At first glance, the crises of the rust belt and the Southwest would seem unrelated. They are, in fact, inexorably linked. Each has what the other does not. In Phoenix, tremendous affluence; in Cleveland, and in Detroit, Toledo, Youngstown, Buffalo, Rochester, Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, abundant, near-endless water – in the Great Lakes alone, as much as 25 per cent of the world’s supply.

And as the Southwest and parts of the Southeast grapple with historic drought, water supply depletion – earlier this year, Lake Okeechobee in Florida, a primary water source for the Everglades, caught fire – and the creeping sense that, with climate change, things can only get worse, a new reality is dawning: that logic, finally, will have a larger role to play in human migratory dynamics, continent-wide. With it come not just doomsday scenarios, but for certain urban centres left for dead in the post-industrial quagmire, a chance at new life.

Over the past few years, I and other upstate bloggers have kicked around a lot of ideas, hopes and laments over the search for a regional identity. Mostly there’s nothing but fragmentation. East, north, south and west don’t seem to have anything in common but economic decline. When it comes to upstate and downstate, upstate doesn’t even have its own name. But if there’s one single thing that unites all of the disparate regions of upstate New York, one aspect that is distinctive… it has to be the quantity, quality, and cultural, spiritual and historical significance of our waters.

Upstate New York is not the only freshwater-rich part of North America (Canada contains the majority of the entire world’s fresh water). Certainly, Minnesota has more lakes; Michigan touches four Great Lakes, to our two; there are mightier rivers out there than the Hudson or the St. Lawrence; higher waterfalls than Niagara (and New York comes in second — to Michigan, again — in the number of waterfalls in American states). But it’s the sheer variety and abundance of the waters, and the extraordinary ways they have been used, which make New York’s relationship with H20 very special.

Water in upstate New York has always meant power. The Finger Lakes are either the blessings of the power of ancient glaciers, or of the power of the hand of the Great Spirit, depending on whose version you believe. In pre-colonial times, a message of peace and power came across a lake, today called Onondaga. In colonial times, control of North America meant control of the Hudson, control of Lake Champlain, and control of the Great Lakes. In young America, it was the hand of man that made the Erie Canal, the artificial river that made New York City’s prestige and power possible. In industrial America, it was the huge amount of power being produced by Niagara Falls that helped spur the search for new methods of power transmission. And for many communities in upstate New York, water attractions (lakes, rivers and springs) still are a source of economic power (or at least, economic survival).

Water also is the most important point of direct relationship between upstate and downstate New York, since New York City relies on upstate reservoirs for its water supply. The relationship of Native and non-Native New Yorkers also refers back to water: the Two Row Wampum agreement, on which all treaties between the Haudenosaunee peoples and the colonial peoples of New York have been based, may specify that the two groups travel in different boats, but in this metaphor, they are most definitely traveling down the same river.

As for the Toronto Star’s speculation above, I’m a little less optimistic that people will behave reasonably over the next century. I’ve written before about my concerns about how rational thought tends to go out the window when it comes to the exploitation of natural resources, particularly concerning the future of the Great Lakes.

Here in this region, we live so comfortably and intimately with water (in all its many forms – even hundreds of inches of the white stuff) that it’s a shock when we find ourselves betrayed by it, as thousands of residents did during the floods of ’06 when the Susquehanna and Mohawk both burst their banks. Of course, we’ve betrayed the water as well, considering the horrific pollution we’ve wreaked on the Hudson River, Onondaga Lake and really just about any other water feature in the whole state. But the issues raised by the Star article also suggest to me that upstate New Yorkers, who are so water-rich — not just materially, but culturally — have certain obligations when it comes to the overarching issue of water. Not just an obligation to safeguard those waters we control for future use and consumption, but to provide insight, springing from long experience, about how all Americans everywhere need to live as stewards of the one resource that no one can live without.

I’m hoping to spend the next year raising this cry a little more often.

5 thoughts on “Upstate NY: The Water State

  1. sean

    it’s a coincidence that you would make these points today. i just finished blogging about another california guy, buffalo bills quarterback jp losman, who sees the whole west-vs-east water deal in a completely opposite way from mr. levy … losman’s take is that the only thing keeping people from loving the northeast, specifically upstate, is their own perception that they shouldn’t love the northeast … specifically upstate.



  2. wild turkey desire

    yeh, i occasionally read your blog, interesting stuff. in the future, it would be great if you could write about hemlock or canadice lake, some of the little finger lakes. there has been a lot going on with them in the news recently in regards to development, and i think they could use a little more attention in the media/blog world. after all, they are the last two undeveloped finger lakes… quite wonderful places.

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