In designing Prospect Park, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux made excellent use of the area’s existing sloping terrain that had been shaped by an ancient, ice-age glacier as it moved across Brooklyn. The 60-acre watercourse the two men designed for the Park utilizes gravity to direct water from Fallkill falls near the Long Meadow, down through the Ravine and Lullwater and into the Park’s 50-acre Lake.
Even without knowing the extent to which New York would grow into a mostly concrete urban environment, Olmsted and Vaux recognized how important it was that the entire 585-acre Park catch thousands and thousands of gallons of rain water which otherwise would be added to the city’s strained storm runoff sewer system. As it flows through the Park, the water sustains lush vegetation and provides a natural home for many species of aquatic plants and animals. Once it reaches the Lake, the majority of the water begins to evaporate.
Besides rain, fresh water for the Park’s watercourse is provided by a pipe at Fallkill Falls that is connected to the City’s water system.
Depending on the amount of precipitation forecast (both rain and snow), Park staff use a valve to control the amount of water entering the watercourse at Fallkill falls. In advance of the recent heavy rains, the water from the pipe at Fallkill Falls was shut off. However, New York City received a record amount of rain on Sunday, Aug, 14: eight inches — “What you would expect in a major hurricane,” AccuWeather senior meteorologist Steve Wistar told the Daily News.
This tremendous amount of rain in the matter of a few hours caused water to overflow the banks of Prospect Park Lake in some places. While the pipe at Fallkill Falls remained turned off, run-off from the rain continued to enter the watercourse for the next few days after the storm — entirely as is should per Olmsted and Vaux’s clever design to have the vast majority of rain water drain from the Park into the watercourse and
Lake, and not the city sewer system.
Similar to the plants and trees on the shoreline of many natural water bodies which occasionally flood, the vegetation around Prospect Park Lake is resilient and not necessarily harmed by the excess water. The oldest trees around the Lake have experienced this occasional flooding on a number occasions in their multi-decade lives.
Over the last 25 years, the Prospect Park Alliance has raised millions of dollars to restore the Park’s watercourse. Lakeside, the $74-million project currently under construction by the Lake, includes the most-extensive restoration and enhancement to date of the original Olmsted-Vaux landscape design for the Park. By replacing the old Wollman Rink with a new facility, five acres are being added to the Lake as well as
three acres of parkland.
Lakeside, and the restoration of the Park’s watercourse, has been made possible thanks to funding from government, foundations, private individuals and corporate support. Some of these funders have been supporting restoration work of the Park’s natural environment — including the Park’s watercourse and lake — for many years now. They share the Alliance’s respect for the brilliant, sustainable design Olmsted and Vaux bequeathed generations of Park users; a design which continues to serve people and the environment well.
The writer is president of the Prospect Park Alliance and administrator of Prospect Park.