Before Jerome Park Reservoir turned into a security fortress that would make Fort Knox proud, people once had a better view of the water.
When the fence went up in 2004, however, the public’s access went down. Now city environmental protection department officials are softening that stance, ever so slightly, lowering the 10-foot-high barrier a little bit as part of an overall $15 million upgrade expected to last until 2021.
The work will remove weeds and brush buildup, add new security equipment, and shorten the fence along the water originally designed to separate the public from what amounts to 10 percent of New York City’s drinking water supply.
People are still not allowed near the water, but DEP officials hope they’ll have a much better view of it without affecting security.
The Croton water filtration plant opened on the eastern side of Van Cortlandt Park in 2015. The reservoir was just downstream, connecting the water to the rest of the city, so limiting the risk of contamination became vital to the DEP, especially in a post-9/11 world.
Even the birds found themselves on DEP’s watch list at one point with a plan to string up wires across the reservoir to keep the aviary creatures — and their unwanted waste — out. That plan was scrapped after neighbors expressed fear such wiring would detract from the view.
If anyone asks Anne Marie Garti, her view of the reservoir is beautiful. A Jerome Park Conservancy member and preservation advocate focused on the site, the fact people can only access the land around the reservoir just a couple days a year or less, it feels more like a “reverse prison.”
“We’re not trying to get them to remove the fence,” Garti said. “We’re all in favor of sensible security precautions, but it’s not realistic to say that just by being by the water anyone can contaminate it, because if anyone wanted to contaminate the water, they could contaminate it right now.”
As of now, Jerome Park Reservoir isn’t letting anyone in with the construction and renovations going on. Part of the work will restore hatches at three of the gatehouses used to manage water flow. Two others will receive roof upgrades, brick wall cleaning, louver and door replacement, and parapet restoration.
New security cameras and traffic control bollards will be placed at two of the gatehouses, while new guardrails will pop up along the roads surrounding the water. All of this will be done in the name of keeping the reservoir protected from pollution, the DEP said in a statement.
“The water in the reservoir does not go from the reservoir to a faucet,” Garti said. “That is something they like to say. The water in the reservoir will always be altered before it gets to a faucet. It goes from the reservoir to the filtration plant and takes a very long time to enter the filtration plant and come out the other side.”
However, even with a filtration plant, water supplies are still at risk. When it comes to poisoning a reservoir, it’s a lot harder than poisoning one person. According to the DEP, the filtration system only checks for specific contaminants but not all. Keeping the public arm’s-length from the park is about making sure the unaccounted for contaminants people may carry — even unintentionally — never make it into the reservoir.
It’s not easy to deliberately poison 770 million gallons of water, but that doesn’t make the water’s protection any less important, according to officials. Bag checks and heightened security at the Jerome Park Reservoir during the rare times people are allowed in is meant to protect the city’s water supply.
However, as a way to sort of meet in the middle, the DEP is lowering the fence to provide a better view of the water.
DEP expects there to be minimal, if any, disruption of traffic around the reservoir, including along the busy Sedgwick Avenue along the water body’s western border. All of this is good news for people like Garti.
“A lower fence around the edge of the reservoir, with an unobstructed view of the water, is a great thing,” Garti said.
Part of Garti’s advocacy for park access is rooted in educating others and showing the beauty of the local waterfront. When schools come to visit, she helps prepare teacher guides and homework for students allowing them to understand the importance of filtered water.
“The kids would come in and say, ‘look it’s the ocean,’” Garti said. “It was very rewarding to do, and then the DEP just stopped all of that.”
The conservancy is not against the degree of security — it’s the level of controlled access that continues to be an issue.
“This is all open to discussion as to what regular limited public access means,” Garti said. “But from my point of view, you could say daily for certain hours, or it could be a different schedule. But (it needs to be) regularly, just not a couple of times a year. Something that is a resource for the public to have.”