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New York City, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)

Why New Yorkers should be worried about their water supply

Experts warn that "the champagne of urban water supplies" is under dire threat

A water main burst near UCLA last week, spilling 20 million gallons of water, flooding cars, and blasting a 15-foot hole into Sunset Boulevard. The 30-foot geyser was the result of a cracked pipe, which burst in the midst of California’s ongoing drought, wasting water that could have supplied 100,000 people.

It took a very visible failure of water infrastructure in a major city to get the public and politicians interested in the invisible, and increasingly creaky, infrastructure. Public figures such as Los Angeles Councilman Mitch Englander have voiced their concern, calling the flooding part of the city’s larger “infrastructure crisis.”

Experts estimate that water systems countrywide will need to be replaced, at the tune of $1 trillion over the next 25 years. But while the flooding in Los Angeles captured headlines around the country, the inconvenience it caused pales in comparison to the threat facing America’s biggest metropolis: New York City.

'Champagne' water

Every day, more than 9 million New Yorkers consume more than 1 billion gallons of some of the purest water in the U.S. Called "the champagne of urban water supplies," it requires no filtration.

The secret to its purity is the pristine condition of the protected watersheds upstate. Located more than 100 miles north of the city, this water is collected by a vast system of 19 reservoirs in the Croton, Catskill and Delaware watersheds that feed an intricate system of more than 6,000 miles of pipes, shafts and subterranean aqueducts. 

Kevin Bone is an expert on the invisible infrastructure that keeps New York City's water taps flowing.
America Tonight

"New York City has been building water supply infrastructure almost continuously for 170 years,” said Kevin Bone, a professor at Cooper Union, and co-author of “Water-Works: The Architecture and Engineering of the New York City Water Supply,” the definitive history of New York City’s infrastructure. "It is the largest, single capital investment that New York City has made, including the subway systems."

That constant investment has been needed to keep up with the explosive growth of the city. In 1930s, and again running out of water, New York City built what many consider to be the crown jewel of its water infrastructure: the Delaware Aqueduct. Finished in 1945, this deep rock pressure tunnel tapped into the Delaware watershed and was designed to deliver up to 850 million gallons of water per day to New York City. On any given day, it delivers anywhere between 50 to 80 percent of the city’s water.

But over the years, the residents in a neighborhood of the small upstate town of Wawarsing, located over the aqueduct, began to notice something odd. Whenever it rained, roads backed up, basements flooded. 

David Sickles in his basement, waist-deep in water.
David Sickles

Longtime resident David Sickles had to move his electrical panels to the ceiling of his basement so that they wouldn’t short out. Ed Jennings, who lived in the neighborhood for more than 50 years, said the problem steadily got worse over the years.

"When we bought the house there was a little bit of water on the floor," Jennings recalled.  "And then, as the years went on, then it got more and more and more and more. And it finally came up to about four feet.  Several times a year. It wasn't four feet of water all the time.”

Initially, the residents didn’t even consider that there could be a problem with the aqueduct.

"We just thought there was a lot of water in the area," Jennings explained, laughing. And New York City officials denied that the town’s flooding was connected to the aqueduct. “The city always said no, it wasn’t leaking. It wasn’t the tunnel leaking,” remembered Jennings.

But the Delaware Aqueduct was leaking, and not just in the town of Wawarsing. In the town of Newburgh, 35 miles southeast, residents thought that a stream bubbling out of a wetlands was a natural artesian well. In reality, the water was coming out of a 36-square-foot tunnel carved out by the force of water blasting from a crack in the aqueduct buried 650 feet underground. Combined with the leak in Wawarsing, New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection admitted in the early 1990s that the aqueduct was leaking at a rate of up to 35 million gallons a day. That’s enough water to supply nearly half a million people a day.

More than waste

The Delaware Aqueduct under construction. It was completed in 1945.
New York City, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)

But while the aqueduct is wasting twice the amount daily that the UCLA water main break did in its entirety, the waste isn’t what worries Bill Wegner, the staff scientist at Riverkeeper, a watchdog organization that monitors the health of the watersheds that feed New York City.

"Worst-case scenario is you'd have a catastrophic failure,” he said. "If the tunnel, which is under pressure, were to collapse, the whole aqueduct would have to be shut down. Fifty percent of the city’s water supply would cease to exist."

A 2001 report published by Riverkeeper concluded that New York City’s reservoirs would run out of water in just 80 days. 

"If you do the math and figure out that the city's going to be hurting for water for 50 percent of its consumers, it is really a catastrophic event," Wegner said. 

And the city would be out of water for years, the amount of time experts estimate it would take to make the repairs, according to the Riverkeeper report. In addition to the Riverkeeper report clearly spelling out the specter of disaster, the election of Michael Bloomberg, who worried that a water tunnel failure could shut down the city, finally forced the DEP to move to confront the problem after decades.

"The number's going to be $1.5 billion to do the entire program to make the fix," said Paul Rush, deputy commissioner of the DEP.  "About two-thirds of it, $1 billion, will actually go into construction a bypass tunnel around the location with the most significant leakage in Roseton, and to do additional concrete grouting in the Wawarsing section."

The city is constructing a bypass around the location with the most significant leakage, which at some point will require the entire aqueduct to be shut down for eight months.
America Tonight

The new bypass tunnel will be one of the most complicated undertakings in the agency’s history. Bored deep beneath the Hudson, it will create a bypass around the worst of the leaks.

Construction began last November and is expected to be finished sometime in 2021. At that time, the entire aqueduct will be shut down to allow the bypass to be connected, and it will be dewatered so that the leaks in Wawarsing can be fixed. Since that will deprive New York City of nearly half its water supply, the DEP is currently in the process of making improvements to other parts of the system to make up for the reduced water. The city is making improvements to Catskill Aqueduct, will bring the Croton watershed back online, tap into wells in Queens, and is pushing New Yorkers to use less water during the repairs.   

And after decades of denying responsibility, the DEP is stepping up and addressing the human impacts of the leak. 

“We've moved forward in Wawarsing with some programs and working closely with the county, with the state and with the town to create a buyout program in Wawarsing,” Rush said.

Many of those near the leak in Wawarsing have taken the money from the buyout and moved on. In the impacted neighborhood, mostly just empty lots and soon-to-be-demolished homes remain.

Jennings is one of the ones who took the buyout. He feels mostly one emotion as he stands on the edge of the vacant field where his home used to be.

“Sheer joy, actually,” he said, ruefully. “ I was just happy to get out of here, as I think a lot of people are.”

But Sickles is staying. He doesn’t believe the money offered by the DEP reflects the true value of his home.

“I’d be taking, like, a $50,000 loss for what they wanted to give me,” Sickles said. “This was the place we were moving into. This was the place we were happy with, you know?

“The flooding came. Well now, ain’t too darn much I can do about it.”

And there’s not much New Yorkers can do about it either – except cross their fingers and hope that the leaks are repaired before disaster strikes.

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