UW- Eau Claire professor’s book makes a splash

David Soll is an assistant professor in the Watershed Institute for Collaborative Environmental Studies program at UW-Eau Claire and is a self-proclaimed water guy.

Released in April, Soll’s book, “Empire of Water: An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply,” an extension of his dissertation, was published by Cornell University Press.

“The story of the book is largely how New York had to give up some of its power in order to maintain its water system,” Soll said.

An amendment to a federal law called the Safe Drinking Water Act passed in 1986 offered an ultimatum to New York City. The city had to either filter its water or embark on a watershed protection program that involved making sure the water was safe and potable on its path from the Catskill Mountain streams to the thirsty mouths in Midtown Manhattan.

Soll said the decision was a $1.5 billion price tag for watershed protection versus $8 billion  for filtration systems; for New York the choice was clear, and the time to act was immediately.

Without the Safe Drinking Water Act, New York City may have acted, but the federal regulation helped propel the city to the watershed protection solution they chose, Soll said.

“One thing I really latched onto that I thought was outstanding was how important the water system was to the way the geography of the city developed,” Soll said. “Reservoirs within the city were no longer needed, so as an outcrop of the water system, they were turned into places such as the New York Public Library, for example.”

Prior to teaching at Eau Claire, Soll taught at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Located just 75 miles from New York, Soll’s location allowed him to take the plunge and add an entire chapter devoted to interviews he conducted with those in connection with the water system.

“Something I liked about the book is that it  brings my history background and environmental studies background together,” Soll said. “It’s definitely a history, but it goes up until 2010, so it’s pretty contemporary, too.”

Potential new chapters are surfacing every day because the city’s water system is ongoing, Soll said, so it’s not a story with a clear endpoint; this is a huge reason why Soll has decided to focus on other things after the book’s publishing.

And his interest in water systems is not exclusive to that of New York City. There was a lack of residential water metering in New York City until the late 1990s, which left the use of water in the city relatively unchecked, Soll said.

“That was something that, no pun intended, flowed over into the Sustainable Cities class I teach within the Honors program,” he said.

In the class Sustainable Cities, there were class discussions about New York’s watershed, but Soll taught an entire unit on Chicago’s water system, too, said Sydney Flottum, sophomore English literature and graphic design major who took the class.

Heather Spray, junior history and Spanish major also took Sustainable Cities with Soll, and she is his research assistant.

In class, Soll’s prior research in the field helped her to grasp the material more clearly because he was very passionate and knowledgeable about what he teaches, Spray said.

“In our research, we’ve been looking at water system supply and sanitation in really big cities in the developing world, so we’re looking at Bangalore, India, specifically,” Spray said.

Soll, Spray and one other student are traveling to Bangalore during winterim 2012-2014 this year where they will research the water system there firsthand, as well as analyze the system’s effectiveness.

“The traditional equation says that environmental protection means economic sacrifices; there is this sense that there’s an irresolvable conflict between the two,” Soll said. “What happened in New York proves this isn’t necessarily true.”