By Noah Sheetz, photographs by Jane Feldman
Until a couple of years ago my wife’s grandfather would spend his summers in Saratoga at the race track. Retired from Bethlehem Steel Corporation, he had worked double shifts for more than 30 years, earning one of the largest pensions awarded in Bethlehem history. On the track he had an uncanny ability to pick winning horses.
Each summer my wife and I would pay a visit to “Iron Man” Arnie and he’d show us the sights of Saratoga. On one occasion he took us to the Saratoga Spa State Park to taste the mineral spring water which was piped through a brick fountain in one of the park’s open pavilions. He’d cup his hands in the fountain and drink. “Delicious! Try it”. I thought the water tasted terrible, warm, sulfur-y and somehow thick (perhaps my imagination).
The springs of Saratoga have a long history, dating back to the French Indian wars. Wounded soldiers were treated with the mineral spring water which was thought to have curative properties. In the 1800’s the mineral water was channeled into a series of upscale spas that put Saratoga Springs on the map as a destination hot spot for the health obsessed rich and famous. The mineral waters were thought to be a positive treatment for many ailments like tuberculosis. Today there is little or no substantial link to any curative or health promoting properties of the mineral spring water.
While the water in Saratoga may not be “magically delicious” what seems fascinating is that it flows from the ground in a pure form, ready for drinking without the need for containment in plastic bottles, deposits, or additional filtration. As we spend small fortunes to lug around cases of water in plastic bottles of all sizes, it makes you wonder how we ever became so removed from drinking water in its most natural form – from a spring in the ground. Or, at the very least, from a tap.
Spring Avenue, Troy, NY
If you ask any Troy resident about the drinking water, tap or spring, they’ll tell you the same thing. “Troy has the best water”. For the better part of a century, many Troy residents have made the trek to the natural spring on Spring Avenue to collect water in glass and plastic containers. The spring was little more than a trickle that fell from a series of rocks until 1958 when the lion’s share of the money to renovate the spring was donated by the children of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Chuckrow, successful poultry business owners from River Street. By the turn of the century, the pipe that channeled the water had become rusty, though the water was still pure and safe to drink. In the summer of 2008, native Troy resident Julie Westfall rounded up donations to pay for restorations and repairs to the spring. Throughout her life, she had been a frequent visitor to the spring and regularly drank the water. “I drink it, I use it to make my coffee, and I cook my macaroni with it” (Troy Record, July, 2008). Today as many as 40 people on average turn up each day to collect the spring water in jugs.
The value of water from the well
Some friends of mine recently had their well contaminated when a neighbor hydro-fracked their own well to make it deeper. The process accidentally unleashed huge deposits of calcium into the surrounding wells in the area making the water hopelessly undrinkable. A post-fracking visit to their house revealed a scattered collection of large and small mason jars filled with mysterious drinking water that was seriously rationed. They asked me if I wanted something to drink. “Sure, how ‘bout a glass of water” I replied not thinking about their unresolved water issues. The long pause, “uh, sure”, was telling. Water was no longer just water in their home. To staunch bottled water opponents, it had taken on the value of say, a 30 year old bottle of single malt scotch.
In the urban community gardens of New York City and Albany, rain barrels have long been a popular fixture, most commonly used as a water source for the gardens but also as a potential source for drinking water. In its simplest form, the barrels collect water from the rooftops of surrounding buildings through a series of gutters, pipes, funnels and filters. Water catchment is an ancient concept that is documented around the world by several different cultures. In New York, Bannerman’s Island, just off the coast of Beacon in the Hudson River, has remnants of several cisterns that were once used to collect water for drinking and bathing.
Water from the bottle
When it comes to bottled water, New York is home to several big name water companies like New York Springs, Saratoga Spring Water Co., and Adirondack Beverages, and there are a few interesting “micro” waters around as well. Moxie’s Ice Cream in Wynantskill bottles its own spring water which sports the Moxie’s label. Tap’dNY is a bottled water company that purifies New York City tap water through reverse osmosis. Perhaps one of the more interesting companies in New York City is Wat-aah!, a water brand created and operated entirely by kids (with a bit of help from their mothers of course).
As hurricane Sandy devastated large areas throughout the northeast, leaving millions of people without electricity and running water, it becomes easy to appreciate having access to bottled water and less traditional sources of water like springs and rain barrels. While it may seem a little bit like something from Mad Max, we should always remember that “life happens”. There’s always a fracking or a hurricane just around the corner.