Water Watch NYC

Everything you need to know about water in NYC.


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Ten Ways to Save the DEP – #5: Fix the Delaware Aqueduct

The Delaware Aqueduct issue is one that has been covered before on this blog. Simply put, there is a leak in the 85-mile long Delaware Aqueduct which transports water from some of our upstate reservoirs to New York City. The aqueduct carries about half of our water from our various upstate reservoir systems and has been leaking for over 20 years. The current estimate has the leak at about 36 million gallons of water per day. For more details about the aqueduct leak, as well as a great attempt at a coverup by the DEP, see this past post.

In our past post linked to above, we said, “Unfortunately, little can be done at this point to actually fix the leak.” We stand by this statement. But we want the leak fixed anyway. How can we demand that the leak be fixed and still claim that little can be done to fix the leak? Simple. We’re asking that a system be put in place now that will allow the leak to be fixed down the road.

The leak can’t be fixed now because shutting down the Delaware Aqueduct cuts off about one half of our water. What we need now is redundancy. If we have another tunnel that can carry water from the Delaware Reservoir System to the city, we can completely shut down the Delaware Aqueduct and not lose half our water. This is the project we need to work on now so that we can fix the Delaware Aqueduct later.

We’re not saying anything new. The mayor’s PlaNYC, which has been around since 2007, calls for the same thing (conveniently, PlaNYC doesn’t say anything about the leak in the aqueduct). But the city bungled their first effort at setting this plan in motion when the Autonomous Underwater Vehicles that they had specially made in order to study the leak couldn’t obtain any useful information. Now, like many objectives of PlaNYC, no real progress has been made.

All we’re asking for is for the objectives of PlaNYC to be put in motion. We’ll stop wasting 36 million gallons of water a day, we’ll be a cleaner, greener city, the mayor will have kept at least one promise to his constituents and everyone will be happier (especially the residents of Wawarsing, NY, whose homes and yards are being flooded by the aqueduct leak).


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Ten Ways to Save the DEP

One of the first actions of Mayor Bloomberg’s third term was to appoint Caswell F. Holloway as the new DEP Commissioner. Commissioner Holloway has his hands full. The Water Board is blaming conservation for projected double-digit increases in water/sewer rates. Environmental groups and the New York Times are focusing in on raw sewage in the Hudson River. Gas drilling is about to begin in the watershed and the Delaware Aqueduct may spring a leak at any time! Yet no one is proposing affordable  solutions. And so, in the coming weeks, WaterWatchNYC will be rolling out a list of “Ten Ways to Save the DEP,” ten steps that we think the DEP, the Water Board and the Mayor should take in order to save money and the environment.

Former DEP Commissioner Albert Appleton

Former DEP Commissioner Albert Appleton

This is not the first time that a Mayor or the  Water Board  faced daunting challenges.  Back when Mayor Dinkins appointed Albert Appleton as the DEP Commissioner in 1990, the agency was beset with  problems. NYC  was  coming out of a Stage III Emergency drought (little did we know that another drought was only a year and a half away), spending was out of control and water and sewer rates were rising at unprecedented levels (from Fiscal Year 1989 to the second half of Fiscal Year 1990, the combined water/sewer rate went up over 40%!). New Yorkers were clamoring  for additional sources of water. The federal government was pressuring NYC to begin filtering its drinking water and the environmental lobby was suing the city to build huge sewer treatment plants.

Commissioner Appleton approached each problem in a novel manner without significantly increasing the financial burden on New Yorkers by thinking outside the box. He did not take existing policy as a given. At every turn he challenged the status quo. In his own words: “Essentially what we did was change the department’s policy from one of building new facilities as needed and managing the existing system within the resources the budget bureau gave us, to a much more proactive, integrated financial-environmental infrastructure strategy.”

He questioned every solution proposed by the DEP’s engineering department and the federal government. When the federal government mandated that NYC start filtering our drinking water, Commissioner Appleton’s priority wasn’t the cheapest and most effective way of building and operating filtration plants. His priority was the cheapest and most effective way of improving the quality of our drinking water.

There is a subtle difference here, but that subtle difference is magnified when you examine the actual outcome. Appleton didn’t build a single water treatment facility. He purchased the land around our reservoirs and ensured that from the very first stages of our water delivery system, the water is clean. At a minimal cost, Commissioner Appleton eliminated the need for billions of dollars of spending.

Appleton’s solution to the drought was no less courageous.  Rather than spend tens of billions of dollars to build new reservoirs, the city spent only $250 million to replace over one million toilets. Now we have more water than we know what to do with. (As of this writing our reservoirs are at 93.6%, over 20% greater than normal.) NYC was told to spend billions and the commissioner said I’ll just prevent this from even becoming an issue and save money in the process.

I bring this up in my introduction because Commissioner Appleton and his approach to creative financial and environmental problem solving is a perfect example of what we need to see from the DEP. All the existing problems can be solved on the cheap by daring to think outside the box. We are currently facing many of the same problems that Appleton faced when he took office (out of control spending and consistent double digit rate increases just to name a few). If there’s one thing Commissioner Appleton has taught us it’s that whether the problem is financial or environmental, all it takes to be one step ahead is thinking outside the box and a little creative problem solving.

And by the way, when Appleton left office, the DEP was in the middle of a three-year freeze on water/sewer rate hikes. All is not lost.


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Shakeup at the Water Board

While the mayor has said that he would renegotiate the rental agreement with the Water Board, the current fiscal crisis facing the city is making that scenario seem quite unlikely. This means that the Water Board is going to continue paying the city exorbitant fees for the use of the reservoirs and subsequently, New Yorkers’ water rates are going to continue to climb astronomically.

Former Water Board Chairman Jim Tripp set a bold precedent recently when he resigned his post in protest of the mayor’s intransigence. Since then, two more members have left the Water Board, Marilyn Gelber and Maria Santos Valentin. It seems that no one wants to be the bad guy blamed for New York’s upcoming rate increases.

Meanwhile, the Water Board is holding a public hearing on Thursday, November 20, most likely to announce three new members. (The new members are appointed by Mayor Bloomberg and will no doubt support his position on the lease agreement.) Details can be found on the Water Board website.

With three of the board’s members expected to join this week, a majority of its seven members will have been sitting on the board for less than two years. (Current chairman Alan Moss was elected in early 2007.)


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The Lease Agreement Explained

As a response to a comment by a loyal reader on a previous post, I would like to briefly explain what’s known as “the lease agreement.” This will hopefully help readers understand why it is such a hot-button issue (Jim Tripp resigned over it) and even why the DEP and Water Board charge so much for water.

The reservoirs that serve New York City belong to the city. The city has authorized the DEP and various other bodies (the Water Board, the Municipal Water Authority) to distribute water throughout the city, collect payments for the water used, perform capital improvements on the infrastructure and, most importantly, to borrow money to pay for the capital improvements (what each body does in this scheme is not that important and is, frankly, pretty complicated). In order to do all of this, the DEP (for simplicity’s sake, from now on when I refer to the DEP, I mean the DEP and the other bodies that deal with water) needs to use the reservoirs. The city has allowed the DEP to use the reservoirs, but for a price.

This is where it gets complicated. Instead of charging the DEP a fixed amount to lease the reservoirs, the city charges the DEP a percentage of the amount of money that they (the DEP) borrow for capital improvements.

The outcome of all this is that as time goes on and the DEP needs to sink (no pun intended) more and more money into capital improvements just to maintain a decent quality (and quantity) of service, the amount of money that they are paying to the city for using the reservoirs goes up and up. Therefore, our water rates go up to help pay for the increasing capital improvement and they go up some more to pay for the increasing price of the reservoirs’ lease.

The further injustice of all this is that the city then takes this money and uses it for whatever they want. They get the money from the DEP which gets it from those of us that use water in the city. They get the money from us and the DEP specifically for the water infrastructure. And then they turn around and use it for whatever else they want.

At this point it is just another way for Bloomberg to get money without raising taxes. It seems like a good deal: the city gets money and since our taxes don’t go up, we think we’re not paying for it. But anyone who has seen their new water bills knows that we definitely are paying for it – to the tune of $5.98 per hundred cubic feet of water.


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Continuing Coverage of Tripp’s Resignation

I recently received a phone call from a reliable source in the City Council. This source enlightened me regarding various factors that were not initially evident that have contributed to the resignation of former Water Board Chairman Jim Tripp.

I was told that the timeline of events did not occur in the order that they were reported. The public was initially told that Tripp had stepped down and that Alan Moss was selected to replace him. Actually, what happened was Mayor Bloomberg took away Tripp’s chairmanship and gave it to Moss. As a response to this Tripp stepped down.

Clearly the mayor wanted Tripp out. He couldn’t completely remove Tripp from the Water Board because members are selected for four year terms and the mayor can’t force them out in the middle of their terms. So the mayor did the only thing he could: not let Tripp be chairman. Tripp responded as I’m sure the mayor expected, by stepping down completely.

The second piece of information I received is even more scandalous. Why was Moss selected as the new chairman? Apparently, six of the seven Water Board members (this was back when Tripp was on the Water Board and there were seven members) signed a letter to City Hall urging the mayor to reconsider the current rental agreement (the amount that the DEP pays the city for use of the reservoirs, currently estimated at a whopping $122 million). Who was the one and only Water Board member that didn’t question Mayor Mike’s decision to continue forwarding this enormous cost onto NYC’s residents? You guessed it! Alan Moss.

There you have it. Tripp said in May that he considered quitting over the Mayor’s recalcitrance but, being the loyal and dedicated environmentalist that he is, he plugged on hoping to be able to make a difference despite the mayor’s stubbornness. That was until the mayor underhandedly removed him and made his opinions as well as his dedication all but useless. It would appear that with the city budget skyrocketing, Mayor Bloomberg and Mark Page, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, are making sure that the DEP pays the entire rental agreement.

I’ve said it before but now, in light of this new information, I say it again with renewed enthusiasm. Chairman Tripp served us well for 16 years. His tenacity, dedication and, most of all, his desire to stand up for what’s right will be sorely missed.


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A Closer Look at the Resignation of Jim Tripp

Any New Yorker who has ever gotten a traffic ticket while Mike Bloomberg has been in office likely knows about Bloomberg’s brilliant ideas to increase the city’s income without raising taxes.

For many years, one of the city’s greatest sources of income has been their lease agreement with the Water Board. The Water Board pays the city exorbitant amounts for their use of the reservoirs and tunnels. The amount paid depends not on the value of these systems but is a percentage of the DEP’s spending. The more the DEP spends on things like upkeep and expansion, the more revenue the city gets. The worst part is that the city doesn’t even have to use this money for water related issues. They can use it for anything from education to street paving.

The city has a similarly absurd agreement with the DEP regarding sanitation. Since dirty streets contaminate clean water when it rains, the city charges the DEP for street cleaning.

These are two of the biggest issues currently facing the DEP and the Water Board. Former Water Board Chair Jim Tripp fought hard against this type of backdoor financing and in July, 2008 considered resigning over the lease agreement. Was the city’s intransigence on this issue the straw that broke the camel’s back?

New York City will miss Jim Tripp’s perseverance.  Will the new Water Board Chair, Alan Moss, fight for what’s best for the residents of New York, or is he in the pocket of the city officials that got him appointed to the Water Board in the first place?

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