Future City Lab: New York's Water I

Lesson One: New York’s Water Cycle


Grade Level: 2-4
Keywords: the water cycle, reservoir, gravity, precipitation, siphon

Time Estimate: 45-60 minutes 

Connection to Future City Lab: Living with Nature: How can New York City enhance its natural environment and cope with climate change? 

Connection to Port City, 1609-1898: Confronting Density, 1810-1865 


Students will

  • Understand some reasons why people need clean water 

  • Be able to explain how New York City gets clean water 


  • Two medium-size containers or tubs 

  • Clear plastic hose 

  • Computer-connected projector 


  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.2.1: Participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners about grade 2 topics and texts with peers and adults in small and larger groups. 
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.2.2: Recount or describe key ideas or details from a text read aloud or information presented orally or through other media. 
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.2.3: Ask and answer questions about what a speaker says in order to clarify comprehension, gather additional information, or deepen understanding of a topic or issue.

Guiding Questions

  1. Why is it important for New Yorkers to have clean water? 

  2. How does New York City get clean water?  


    The students will find out the water from New York City’s faucets come from large regions north of the city called “watersheds.” After water gets filtered and collected via these watersheds, it accumulates and is held for future use in areas called "reservoirs." City planners and engineers pipe water along its way so it can be used throughout the city. Gravity lies at the heart of this process, from its natural action within the watershed to the way in which it is harnessed to move water towards the city via pipes and aqueducts. 

  1. Preparation
  2. Prior to the lesson, review the following resources: 

    1.) The New York Times, "New York 101: How New York Gets Its Water"

    2.) The NYC Department of Environmental Protection FAQs

  3. Introduction
  4. Tell students: “Today we will learn about clean fresh water.” 

    Brainstorm: “Has anyone ever wondered where we get water?” 

    List responses on whiteboard. Emphasize vocabulary words like rain, ocean, lake, river, faucet, etc. 

  5. Review
  6. If the class has learned about the water cycle or is learning for the first time, review materials planned for that unit. Suggested titles to read aloud are Did a Dinosaur Drink This Water? by Robert E. Wells or Down Comes The Rain by Franklyn Branley. 

    Transition: When we learn about the water cycle, we also need to think about what we can do to keep water clean so people, plants, and animals can use it safely. Today we’re going to talk about how New York City gets clean water and what we do to keep it safe. 

  7. New York’s Watershed
  8. Display the diagram found here and, if desired, walk students through the various steps found on the left-hand side. Explain that the need for clean water sent New Yorkers northward starting in the 1830s to tap the uncontaminated resources north of the city. The city bought the land around each reservoir and continues to monitor it today, but a significant amount of the watershed is not owned by the city. 

    Discussion: Do you think it’s fair that New York City takes water from areas far away? Why or why not? 

    Concept: Filtration 

    Explain how watersheds naturally filter water. (Note: Lesson Three in this series offers an experiment that demonstrates this.) The water that comes from the sky goes through natural filters of soil and tree roots before being collected in reservoirs.  

  9. The Water System Today
  10. Show students the diagrams found here. Using your pre-reading of this article as a guide, make it clear that the same water that falls as precipitation from the sky is collected in reservoirs, closely monitored and lightly treated for safety, and sent directly via aqueducts and pipes to New Yorkers’ taps, washing machines, and toilets. 

    Concept: Gravity 

    New York City’s watershed and aqueduct system is fed entirely by gravity – from the water that flows downward and is filtered on its way to reservoirs, to the water that enters our water mains and is fed to the city. Gravity is the force that pulls everything towards the Earth and keeps us from floating away. 

    Engineers figured out how to use this gravity – over the course of the Croton Aqueduct, for example, water descends at a rate of only 13 inches per mile, but it’s enough to keep the whole system flowing towards the city. 

    Pumps are used at key junctions at buildings to help water move up to water towers, but the unassisted pressure of the water is usually enough to reach the 6th floor of most buildings on its own!  

  11. Siphon Demonstration
  12. Demonstrate how water can flow up without any machinery by showing students a basic siphon: fill one of your two containers with water and place it on a counter or chair. Place the other container in a lower spot than the other. Feed the clear hose into the container with the water and remove all the air, either by sucking the water out with your mouth or submerging it in the tank entirely and then covering and holding one end with your thumb while the tube is still underwater. Once air is out of the hose, use your thumb as a stopper and place that end of the hose in the receiving container, making sure that the hose stays submerged in the water on the other side so air doesn’t get back in. The siphon should flow up and out of the first container and into the second. 

    (Refer here for a video demonstration of what this might look like, as well as an advanced discussion of the forces at work)

    Explain: engineers have figured out how to use natural forces to help water flow throughout New York City’s water system without the use of machinery. Why is that a good idea? 

  13. Conclusion
  14. We have a responsibility to keep the water in the system clean all the steps of the way. One thing we can do is not overuse it, since it takes so many natural resources to filter the water we use. (Note: Lesson Two of this series deals with water use.) 

    Reinforce: Consider sourcing The Magic Schoolbus At the Waterworks (Cole and Degen) in a special New York City Edition published in cooperation with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

Additional Resources 

Fieldtrips: This content is inspired by the Port City, 1609-1898 and Future City Lab galleries in the Museum’s flagship exhibition, New York at Its Core. If possible, consider bringing your students on a fieldtrip! Visit http://mcny.org/education/field-trips to find out more. 



This series of lesson plans for New York at Its Core was developed in conjunction with a focus group of New York City public school teachers: Joy Canning, Max Chomet, Vassili Frantzis, Jessica Lam, Patty Ng, and Patricia Schultz.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these lessons do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.