The Croton Reservoir System-The Gem of Northern Westchester

During my senior year in college, way back when, I had a professor of political science who was teaching a 400 level course on Southern Africa political history. Before we broke for the Christmas Holidays, he told me he was going to visit back East and interview for a teaching position at two SUNY campuses. He had never been to New York, and was looking forward to the trip. When our classes reconvened after New Years, he came right up to me and said how surprised he was at the beautiful countryside of Long Island and, particularly, Westchester County. He had expected nothing but a dense suburban setting, and thus could not get over all the open, rolling countryside, especially the lakes in Northern Westchester.

Of course, what the professor was referring to were the reservoirs that comprise the Croton Watershed System. They are indeed both beautiful and numerous, a source of peaceful relaxation and reflection, as well as recreational opportunities.



As the population of New York City grew almost exponentially in the first three decades of the 19th Century, it became apparent that the water supply system currently existing would have to be greatly expanded. The first use of water from Westchester County came from the Old Croton Dam (forming what was called Croton Lake), which was begun in 1837 and completed in 1842. It was located at the narrowest section of the Croton River, between what is now the end of Quick’s Lane/Ridge Road in Katonah on the east and Muscoot Farm Park in Somers on the west. The Dam itself was submerged in 1905 when the New Croton Dam was constructed and now lies beneath 30 feet of water. It is visible on a clear day from an airplane.

The Old Croton Dam, completed in 1842

In 1885, the old Kensico Dam was built south of the village of Kensico (now Valhalla). The earth and gravel dam formed a small lake from water supplied by the Bronx River and the Byram River, but it was still not enough for the ever-increasing population of New York City. A far greater expansion would be necessary. The solution, at least for the time being, would be a vast expansion of the Croton Reservoir and its tributaries.

The Croton River is formed from tributaries in Putnam County, with its volume being increased by such streams and rivers in Westchester as the Muscoot, the Amawalk, the Titicus, the Cross River, and Bog Brook and Plum Brook, among others. The grand plan was to dam the Croton River near its southwestern terminus, then each of its tributaries, creating a series of twelve reservoirs and an immense water storage capacity for the future needs of New York City.


The twelve reservoirs comprising the Croton Watershed are as follows:

(1) Boyds Corner Reservoir. A small reservoir in Putnam County, it is the northernmost reservoir in the Croton Watershed, and was formed by impounding the Middle Branch of the Croton River. It was completed in 1872 and put into service in 1873, making it the oldest reservoir with the exception of the Croton.

(2) West Branch Reservoir. This is the second northernmost reservoir in the Croton System and was put into service in 1895.

(3) Bog Brook Reservoir. It is located in the Town of Southeast in Putnam County and was put into service in 1892. It is connected to the nearby East Branch Reservoir by a 1,778-foot underground tunnel.

(4) Middle Branch Reservoir. This is also located in the Town of Southeast in Putnam County. It was created in 1878 by damming the Middle Branch of the Croton River.

(5) East Branch Reservoir. It is similarly located in the Town of Southeast in Putnam County and was placed into service in 1891.

(6) Croton Falls Reservoir. This is a small reservoir located in the Towns of Carmel and Southeast in Putnam County, just four miles north of the Village of Croton Falls in Westchester County. The reservoir was placed into service in 1911, and is currently undergoing a major $74 million project of renovations and improvements by the NYC EPA.

(7) Diverting Reservoir. This is another small reservoir located immediately south of the Village of Brewster in Putnam County. It is connected to the nearby Croton Falls Reservoir via a channel and dividing weir.

(8) Titicus Reservoir. The Titicus is located in the Town of North Salem in Westchester County and was put into service in 1893.

(9) Cross River Reservoir. It is situated one mile east of the Village of Katonah and is in the Towns of Bedford, Lewisboro and Pound Ridge. The reservoir was finally put into service in 1908.

(10) Muscoot Reservoir. Located immediately north of the Village of Katonah, this reservoir was once much smaller, but the other side of the original dam was intentionally flooded to make the reservoir bigger, when a new dam was built downstream. The original dam is still standing, and divides the reservoir in two. The reservoir was finally completed in 1905. The resulting body of water is the main collecting point for all of the reservoirs in the Croton Watershed, except for the New Croton Reservoir.

(11) Amawalk Reservoir. This is a small, but very picturesque, reservoir located in the Town of Somers some five miles west of the Villages of Katonah and Somers.

(12) New Croton Reservoir. This reservoir is the collecting point from all the other reservoirs in the Croton System. It was created in 1906 by the construction of the New Croton Dam, a massive undertaking for that era. The dam was begun in 1892, and employed thousands of Irish immigrant workers. At the time of its completion, it was the tallest dam in the world.



The New Croton Dam, completed in 1906

Before moving to Bedford in 1971, my wife and I had leased horses for an occasional weekend ride on the trails of the Bedford Riding Lanes Association. On one of those first weekends, we stopped at a local deli and bought a picnic lunch, accompanied by a half bottle of red wine from the local wine shop. We drove north on Route 121 from Bedford Village and crossed the small viaduct over the Cross River Reservoir. We pulled over about a quarter mile north of the bridge, parked the car next to a collection of rowboats, and picnicked at water’s edge on what was a sunny and warm spring day. And with that experience under our belts, we decided that this area was to be our future home.


Fishing and Hiking

But picnics are but one of many recreational opportunities afforded by the Croton Reservoir System. The main attraction is fishing in these waters. Species to be found in the reservoirs are Brown and Rainbow Trout, Lake Trout, Walleye, Perch, Small and Large Mouth Bass, Landlocked Salmon, and Baitfish—alewives, also known locally as sawbellies, that are food for larger species and are available at local tackle shops and used as bait by fisherman.

The web site of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) poses an interesting question regarding licenses for hunting and fishing, one certainly worthy of the public’s attention: “Have you ever wondered why you need a license to do some of your favorite outdoor activities? Fishing and hunting, as well as other outdoor sports, require careful management to strike a balance between supply and demand. History proves that the uncontrolled taking of fish and animals can cause the demise of a species. … Licensing is an effective way of exerting studied control on these activities and, at the same time, helps fund continued data collecting and research efforts.”

Everyone, with a few exceptions, must have a valid fishing license in their possession while fishing. Actually, to fish in the reservoirs and streams in the Croton Watershed, two licenses are required.

The first is a State license, which is issued by the New York State DEC. The fee for 2010—2011 for adults is $29.00. Licenses can be obtained at local fishing supply shops or by contacting the DEC Department of Fish, Wildlife & Marine Resources at 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4753. Their phone number is 518-402-8845.

The second license required is a free New York City Public Access Permit (PAP). These permits afford access to designated City-owned lands for both fishing and hiking and, with additional special registration, for rowboats and hunting. Each DEP Public Access Permit is individually numbered and allows the holder to fish from the shores of reservoirs, and to fish and hike on specified properties acquired by the City since the signing of the Watershed Memorandum of Agreement in 1997. To obtain a PAP, an application must be filled out and mailed to NYCDEP, 71 Smith Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401. Applications are available at local tackle shops in the Watershed area, at all DEP Police Precincts and Protection Permit Offices, or at the DEP Web Site at People with questions about obtaining PAPs can call 1-800-575-LAND.

In addition to fishing, many fine trails border most of the Croton reservoirs and provide excellent hiking opportunities. I remember meeting a close friend who lived on Haines Road in Bedford Hills one early fall morning. We set off on horseback for a leisurely three hour ride on the newly opened BRLA trails in his area, which included a two-mile stretch along the shores of the Croton Reservoir, ending at the intersection of Cherry Street and Route 35. It was quite a beautiful ride that day.


Ice Skating

The DEP allows ice skating, conditions permitting, in designated areas of some reservoirs. The one I am most familiar with is on the Cross River Reservoir immediately across from the entrance to the Ward/Pound Ridge Reservation off of Route 121. Skating in non-designated areas is strictly forbidden and subject to fines and penalties.



Boating for the purposes of fishing is allowed on New York City reservoirs to registered individuals having the appropriate DEP Access Permit and Boat Tag. DEP currently allows expanded recreational boating (canoes, kayaks, sailboats, etc.) at the Cannonsville Reservoir in Delaware County in the Catskills. This usage is part of a three-year pilot program that will be evaluated in 2011. The hope is that some forms of recreational boating, other than rowboats for fishing, will be permitted at some of the Croton System reservoirs.



The main purpose of the reservoirs is to insure clean and bacteria free water to meet the needs of the population of New York City. To that end, motorized boating of any kind is prohibited. Swimming is also totally outlawed, as is sailing or windsurfing, except as noted above.



The Croton System reservoirs are one of the treasures of Westchester and Putnam Counties. They are scenically magnificent, a vital source of clean water for New York City residents, and provide a wide variety of recreational usages. The rules and regulations governing the public’s enjoyment of this wonderful resource should be respected and observed by all our citizens. It is not a bad trade-off for having such a treasure.

Posted by:  Bill Breakstone

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