March 2, 2009, Times Herald Record: Fresh-water museum slated for Arkville Timely topic blends history, environment

Fresh-water museum slated for Arkville

Timely topic blends history, environment

var isoPubDate = 'March 02, 2009'

ARKVILLE — The controversies that wracked communities in the Catskills watershed during the late '90s have yielded a bonus-in-the-making: a $25 million museum devoted exclusively to the history of fresh water.

If that sounds a bit . . . watery as the focus of a museum, you're taking a lot for granted. The story of water is the story of life itself, rife with drama and explosive political import. Water threatens to be to the future what petroleum is to the present — a natural resource for which wars will be fought.

"And it's the one natural resource that can't be replaced," said Joseph Hurwitz, architect of the museum that's slated for the hamlet of Arkville. He, like others associated with the Water Discovery Center, has become a fountain of facts on the subject.

By the year 2025, for example, experts are estimating two-thirds of the world's population will suffer water shortages. As the center's promotional material ominously reminds people, "All the water that will ever be is, right now."

Hurwitz, whose office is in West Hurley, had initially designed a more modest building about seven years ago. That was when the center's board of directors envisioned a regional museum that focused on the history and importance of the reservoir and aqueduct system that delivers a billion gallons of water to New York City every day.

"But we spoke to various consultants who told us we had a tiger by the tail," said Gary Gailes, president of the center's board of trustees. The story of fresh water, they were told, was about as big and critical a subject as could be imagined. And, while there were other museums and maritime museums that dealt with the fate and history of oceans, there was none devoted solely to fresh water.

What has evolved since its early days is a design that will incorporate the bad news about water with a variety of interactive displays, films and presentations created by world-renowned designer Leonard Levitan that offer conservation alternatives.

Hurwitz delights in explaining how the structure's signature architectural "mountains" — several chamfered roofs — will channel rainwater into "valleys" that will then guide it to underground cisterns. The design effectively mimics the natural process that created the watershed, while helping it reach its target of a zero-carbon footprint.

Unlike its neighboring development project, the Belleayre Resort at Catskill park, the planned Water Discovery Center has attracted no appreciable controversy.

"We've been welcomed with open arms," Hurwitz said. The only request he said he's aware of is the request that the center memorialize the often arrogant ways in which watershed communities were emptied to make way for the reservoir system by a water-desperate city that brooked no opposition.

That story, Levitan said, will indeed be told.

As for the $25 million price tag, Gailes said the center has a three-year fundraising plan that will focus on attracting foundation grants and wealthy donors. He said he also hopes to attract celebrity supporters such as Al Gore, Robert Kennedy Jr. and Leonardo DiCaprio, who recently made a documentary about the water crisis.

Gailes is confident the museum will attract 100,000 visitors annually, despite its off-the-beaten-path location.

"The Wild Center in the Adirondacks, which is closer to Canada than metropolitan New York City, draws 150,000 people a year. It seems to us 100,000 is a safe figure."

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* The Water Discovery Center will be located on a 44-acre site in Arkville, a hamlet in Delaware County on the east branch of the Delaware River.

* The 65,000-square-foot structure is designed to have a zero-carbon footprint, thanks to systems that include rooftop gardens, geothermal heating and cooling and photovoltaic arrays.

* The museum will include 25,000 square feet of interactive exhibits as well as a 145-seat theater and conference center.

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