The Ridgewood Reservoir in Highland Park has officially been designated a wetland by the NYS DEC after 11 years of advocacy by a coalition of environmental and historic preservation activists. The order was signed by DEC on October 24, 2018 although the Queens Parks Commissioner was not made aware of it until late December. This is a huge victory for all of us who advocated for protection as well as park goers who enjoy visiting the Reservoir.
There are dozens of individuals and organizations that deserve credit for this, mainly Queens Community Board 5 and the Highland Park-Ridgewood Reservoir Alliance, the umbrella group that includes Newtown Historical Society, Juniper Park Civic Association and Queens Civic Congress along with many others.
The Bloomberg Administration, under its PlaNYC 2030 initiative, wanted to spend $40 million to turn Highland Park into a "destination park" by removing the natural habitats and replacing them with active recreation, including artificial turf ball fields. An opposition effort was spearheaded in 2007 by birders and artists, mainly from Brooklyn. They grew a coalition that included many local civic and environmental groups, as well as heavy hitters like NYC Audubon and Riverkeeper. Comptroller William Thompson and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s 2008 NY Times op-ed raised the visibility of the reservoir's predicament citywide. While on a nature trip in 2009, I alerted certified wetlands delineator Mickey Cohen to the situation and he volunteered to map the areas inside the Ridgewood Reservoir basins for the Highland Park-Ridgewood Reservoir Alliance (previously known as the Ridgewood Reservoir Education & Preservation Project). He wrote a detailed report, which was included with our 2010 application to the DEC for wetlands designation. The review by the agency was delayed due to Hurricane Sandy and other environmental issues in the state. DEC later claimed each of the basins were individual wetlands, and each of them were too small to meet the criteria for designation.
Parks changes course
Meanwhile, the Bloomberg administration reallocated much of the funding for the Reservoir to other park projects, which caused NYC Parks to abandon its development plan, but they proceeded with restoration of the paths around the perimeter and between basins 2 and 3. Historic preservation and natural conservation eventually won over, but the DEC had the reservoir classified as a "high-hazard" dam, and the Parks Dept then was put in the position of having to breach the walls of the basins in order to comply with DEC's safety regulations, which would have put the habitats in peril. In 2014, the Parks Dept requested that the DEC reclassify the reservoir as a "low hazard" dam, and in 2017 then-Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski announced that she completed the application to accomplish that, which eliminated the need to alter the walls of the basins.
In November 2017, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos wrote to Assembly Member Cathy Nolan to explain that there was another criterion that could be used to designate the Reservoir as wetlands. The basins' "unusual local importance" made them eligible. A hearing was held and the comment period ended in March of last year. Then, it was just a matter of waiting for final approval.
The Newtown Historical Society and Juniper Park Civic Association are proud to have been a part of this amazing effort. We believe that environmentalism and historic preservation go hand-in-hand. We are still looking forward to seeing the pathway and fencing between basins 1 and 2 restored, for the invasive species within the basins to be replaced with native plants, and hope the gatehouse and pumphouse will someday be adaptively reused, but now is a time to celebrate achieving a long-sought victory.