NEW YORK CITY — They won't exactly be able to dip their toes in, but city school kids will get pretty close to touching one of the reservoirs that provides their drinking water.
Come September, the New York City-based HarborLAB — for "Learning Adventure Boating" — will start leading its free "Watershed Wonder Tours," taking students in kayaks and canoes onto the Neversink Reservoir, one of six reservoirs in the Catskill Watershed region.
"Most kids living on the Lower East Side or Brownsville aren't thinking that their water is coming from this beautiful pristine lake," said HarborLAB's founder Erik Baard.
"When I was growing up in Queens, turning the faucet was like flipping the light switch. I didn't ponder much about either source."
But this generation can no longer assume that there will always be plenty of water or that it will be clean, especially as the possibility of hydrofracking — gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing — in the Catskills continues to loom, he said.
"We need active civic stewardship," said Baard, who dreamed up the idea of taking kids to visit the sources during a tour of the Catskill's mountain villages in 2011.
The program will be coupled with forest hikes, where kids will learn how the trees clean the water. Baard hopes to eventually include farm visits and involve Catskills residents, creating a "country mouse-city mouse kind of thing."
It will also teach kids about the aqueducts and tunnels that deliver water to the five boroughs.
"It's up there with the Romans as a legacy," said Baard, a longtime boating advocate and founder of the Long Island City Community Boathouse. "This is a great opportunity for [kids] to learn about nature and engineering in one shot."
HarborLAB was awarded a $10,000 education grant in May from the Catskill Watershed Corporation in partnership with the city's Department of Environmental Protection for the 10 tandem kayaks and five canoes it will use for the tours.
Diane Galusha, of the Catskills Watershed Corporation, is hopeful the "out-of-the box" combo of education and recreation will turn kids into future conservationists who will be less likely "to go and toss a McDonald's bag" outside.
Non-motor powered boats are allowed on four of the reservoirs as long as they're steam-cleaned before touching the water to prevent invasive species from hitching a ride into the drinking system.
"We need to make sure pipes aren't colonized by zebra mussels or anything invasive that would compete with the natives," said Galusha, whose organization worked with the DEP four years ago on piloting a recreation program in one of the reservoirs before opening it to others this year.
The human-powered boats were found to have no impact on the water quality, but they did have an effect on the towns in the area, Galusha said. Bringing people to the reservoirs helped spur local business, especially the steam-cleaning industry.
"Mercifully, the kids needn't be steam cleaned," Baard said. "Normal kid dust won't affect the ecosystem of the reservoirs, which have fish and wildlife in and around them."
"HarborLAB is the only paddling group in New York City with two fleets at opposite ends of the water system, from the highlands to the harbor. Of course a cynic might say, 'from the source to the sewer.' But as environmentalists we're all working on that, aren't we?"
Educators and community groups interested in the tours can reduce transportation costs through a Watershed Agricultural Council Bus Tour Grant. Applications are due July 15.