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Christina Wilkinson/Newtown Historical Society

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At a Queens park, an urban wetland is reclaimed

“It was the land that time forgot”

In the frigid February of 2009, Mickey Cohen was on the road to the 50-acre Ridgewood Reservoir on the border of Brooklyn and Queens before most New Yorkers had their morning coffee. He’d park his car near one of the reservoir’s three basins, gingerly rappel down a 30-foot drop into the chasm, and hike into the otherworldly wetlands.

During these trips, the certified wetland delineator unpacked his gear and drilled into the soft earth, lugging the two-foot cores out of the ground and examining them, in part, for traces of plant species that no longer grow there—a sign of wetlands that once existed. After hours of tests, he’d warm up in the sun and pull out a mystery meal packed by his wife, Barbara. There, in his sunny spot eating lunch, he might gaze out at the gray-blue pond—still as glass—and admire the landscape, home to dozens of species tucked among the reservoir’s golden meadows, thickets, and canopies of tree branches.

It was a practice he repeated for several days as a coalition of groups called the Highland Park Ridgewood Reservoir Alliance prepared an application urging the state grant protected status to the wetlands within the reservoir.

Cohen was 82-years-old at the time. Today he is 92. “Even then, I was too old for that kind of work,” the naturalist and retired high school biology teacher muses. “But it had to happen.”

Cohen’s volunteer work of mapping the wetlands inside the Ridgewood Reservoir that month was a key component to the 2010 application—a major step in the lengthy struggle to obtain protected status for the natural oasis.

Now, after more than a decade of advocates fending off development and fighting for protections, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has classified 29.5 acres of the reservoir’s wetlands as Class 1 under the Freshwater Wetlands Act, state documents show. The ruling virtually assures the reservoir’s survival for generations.

Ridgewood Reservoir was built in 1858 to meet the needs of Brooklyn’s burgeoning population. By 1889, it was the last link in the aqueduct system that originated in Nassau County and held 154 million gallons until it largely ceased operation in 1959—serving as a backup for Brooklyn and Queens until 1989, according to the NYC Parks Department.

Ridgewood Reservoir in 1887
Newtown Historical Society

The reservoir was drained and forsaken, and within a generation, the piece of obsolete urban infrastructure was reclaimed by nature.

Today, it is a haven for wildlife with lush swaths of native birch, sweetgum, and honey locust trees. The landscape boasts a handful of habitats—forests, fields, wetlands—and makes an ideal spot for wildlife watching, with more than 150 bird species, including the endangered short-eared owl.

But a plan by the Parks Department threatened the accidental wilderness. The agency, which acquired the reservoir from the Department of Environmental Protection in 2004, considered a $50 million plan to raze part of the reservoir for ball fields. Community activists, naturalists, and preservationists railed against the project, urging the city to abandon its plans.

“There was this, ‘Wait a second, why aren’t you taking care of the things you already have here?’” says parks watchdog Geoffrey Croft, the president of New York City Park Advocates. “‘Who asked you to destroy this really unique space?’ And the answer is nobody did.”

Then-city Comptroller William Thompson and environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. raised the reservoir’s imperiled profile in May 2008 with an op-ed against the plan in the New York Times. Parks backed away from the project later that year after funds dried up, though it did move forward with plans to restore paths along the reservoir’s perimeter.

But the reservoir wasn’t out of the woods yet. A state classification as a “high-hazard dam”—even though 10 feet of rain wouldn’t fill the reservoir—meant Parks would face state fines if they didn’t mitigate the perceived flood hazard. The city settled on a plan: breech the levees in three different places with culverts, a structure that allows water to flow under roads. Advocates sprang into action, arguing the project was an unnecessary one that would damage the local ecosystem.

“The variety of plant and animal life that utilize the habitat in the basins is so diverse and it’s unique in that respect,” says Christina Wilkinson, the president of the Newtown Historical Society, which has championed the reservoir over the years. “Once you eradicate that, then that opportunity for education is gone. That would be a real shame, to lose something so vital in our own backyard.”

Steve Garza/Newtown Historical Society

In September 2014, DEC said Parks requested a reclassification of the reservoir as a “low-hazard dam.” The new status only went into effect in April 2017 with then-Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski calling the move “an important step forward to ensure the preservation of this treasured green space.”

Shortly after, DEC, with the assistance of Parks, picked up Cohen’s mantle of mapping the reservoir’s wetlands. In February 2018, conservation officials initiated the process to add the wetlands to the state’s list and come October, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos signed an order that the reservoir’s nearly 30 acres of wetlands be protected under the state’s Freshwater Wetlands Act effective November 2018, according to state documents.

The hard-fought order was quietly signed into effect with little fanfare, until local activists caught wind of the ruling in January. “The way it was done was anticlimactic,” says Wilkinson with a laugh. “But I can’t believe it’s finished. It takes a while to let it sink in.”

Jonathan Turer, the director of programs and projects at NYC H2O—which has brought more than 4,000 students to the reservoir for field trips, and played a key role in adding Ridgewood Reservoir to the National Register of Historic Places—said he would have been jumping for joy when he heard the news if he weren’t in a car.

“It’s one more layer of protection this magical space deserves,” says Turer.

The state’s Freshwater Wetlands Act regulates certain activities in or within 100 feet of the marshland’s boundary. A difficult-to-obtain permit is required to construct buildings or roads, cut down vegetation, drain the land, and more because such acts damage wetlands and their natural benefits including flood control, filtering out pollutants and serving as a wildlife hub—often sheltering threatened and endangered species.

But there is sill much work to be done before the reservoir is fully revitalized.

The Parks Department is in the midst of a $5.3 million project to reconstruct a dilapidated gatehouse at the reservoir. At the moment, no interior work is slated for the building. Parks expects the project’s design, which is subject to DEC approval, to be complete in fall 2019, according to spokesperson Meghan Lalor.

The gatehouse is among a handful of buildings that community activists hope will eventually be restored. In the meantime, Parks is working on a plan to remove the invasive species that have taken root across the reservoir.

An engine house at Ridgewood Reservoir in 1874
Newtown Historical Society

Croft calls the space “one of the worst sites for invasives in the city” and says a comprehensive plan to address the issue will be a truly massive undertaking for the city.

“There’s invasive vines everywhere and I mean everywhere,” he says. “Invasives actually hurt—they diminish food for animals that need and rely on it and there’s a whole ecosystem there. It’s going to take tens of millions of dollars to restore and that means taking out the invasives and ensuring that they don’t come back.”

The common reed, for instance, has overwhelmed part of the reservoir. Parks conducted a pilot removal with NYC H2O and Patagonia last fall to eradicate the plants from the interior edge of one of the basins. Parks plans to repeat the method in the same location this summer and monitor the impact, according to Lalor.

Beyond that, local City Council member Robert Holden plans to work with the Parks Department to push for additional restoration funds. But in the meantime, the reservoir’s protectors revel in their victory.

“It’s going to be protected forever and when I say forever I really mean forever—mañana, mañana,” says Cohen. “They say mañana never comes, but mañana is here.”

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