Water Watch NYC

Everything you need to know about water in NYC.


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William Kusterbeck No Longer Water Board Treasurer

As of late last week (UPDATE 9/9/09: effective the afternoon of Thursday, September 3), William Kusterbeck is longer the New York City Water Board Treasurer. Details surrounding his departure are, as of now, unknown. We will keep you posted as the story develops.

Mr. Kusterbeck has been treasurer since 1985 and worked for the DEP for six years before that. His positions in the DEP have included Director of Rates and Revenue and Director of the Office of Planning.

Regardless of the details surrounding his departure, we at WaterWatchNYC wish to commend Mr. Kusterbeck for his 30 years of service to our city. He oversaw cash-strapped budgets during droughts and worked hard to reel in the out of control spending of recent years. His dedication to serving the public will be sorely missed.


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Water/Sewer Rates Going Up Today

As it does on every July 1, the DEP’s water and sewer rate goes up today. The new rate is $6.76 per hundred cubic feet (hcf) of water, or $2.61 per hcf as a water charge and $4.15 per hcf as a sewer charge (159% of the water charge). One hcf is approximately equal to 748 gallons.

One of the most popular links on this blog during the last 12 months was a graph of the DEP’s Water/Sewer rate from 1980 to 2009. An updated version of the graph, from 1980 to 2010, can be found here.


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Conservation or Economy?

At last Friday’s Water Board meeting, it was announced that the 6% drop in water consumption has increased to above 7%. While the DEP, Water Board and this blog have in the past attributed this reduction in water use to conservation, we would now like to explore the possibility that something else is going on here.

While we are sure that some of this reduction in consumption is due to conservation, the possibility was raised on Friday that more than just conservation may be at play here. As the economy continues to suffer and more and more businesses close their doors, it stands to reason that less water will be used. Therefore, it makes sense to say that this unprecedented drop in water consumption should not be entirely attributed to conservation, but some “credit” should go to the weak economy.

This makes the DEP’s job of predicting future water consumption extremely difficult. In the past, the DEP could safely predict an annual 1% drop in water consumption due to conservation. Now that the economic climate is affecting water consumption, the DEP must predict how much longer and to what degree consumption will continue to drop above and beyond the 1% per year figure. And when consumption starts picking up again, the DEP must predict how long it will take and how much consumption will increase.

In the past we have been hard on the DEP. I don’t mean to say that we won’t continue to be hard on them. Hopefully, our past and future criticism of the DEP will enable changes that benefit both New York residents and the DEP. But we do have to recognize that every now and then the DEP is thrown a curveball and we hope they continue to do their best to deal with those curveballs as they come.


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DEP Lays Out Specifics on Amnesty Program

We’ve been tracking the DEP’s new Denial of Access and Theft of Services regulations for a long time. The last thing the DEP told the public about these new regulations was that there’d be a 120-day amnesty period beginning July 1 during which time customers found to be stealing water and/or denying access will not pay the full amount demanded by the new regulations.

The DEP recently released the specific numbers that they intend to use during the amnesty program, and I must say, they are quite reasonable. The new regulations authorize the DEP to charge customers found to be stealing water and/or denying access for water consumption at the 90th percentile. The attributed consumption and charges are detailed in this post. (Be aware though, that since Fiscal Year 2010’s water rate increase was only 12.9% and not the originally announced 14%, the actual costs for this attributed consumption is slightly lower than is listed.)

During the amnesty period, customers are only going to be charged at the 50th percentile, which is the following for commercial properties:

Meter Size –       Annual Attributed Consumption Rate (Gallons per Year)

5/8″ and less                                                                                50,000
3/4″ or more and less than 1.5″                                                   80,000
1.5″ or more and less than 3″                                                    280,000
3″ or more and less than 4″                                                       550,000
4″ or more and less than 6″                                                    1,300,000
6″ or more and less than 8″                                                    2,300,000
8″ or more and less than 10″                                                  4,600,000
10″ or greater                                                                       38,000,000

and the following for residential units:

First Dwelling Unit                                                                         70,000
Each Additional Unit                                                                      60,000

In dollars, this comes to:

Meter Size –                                                          Annual Attributed Cost

5/8″ and less                                                                            $       452
3/4″ or more and less than 1.5″                                                        723
1.5″ or more and less than 3″                                                        2,530
3″ or more and less than 4″                                                           4,971
4″ or more and less than 6″                                                         11,748
6″ or more and less than 8″                                                         20,786
8″ or more and less than 10″                                                       41,572
10″ or greater                                                                            343,417

and:

First Dwelling Unit                                                                            $633
Each Additional Unit                                                                           542

I expressed my frustration when I thought it was too high; it would be unfair of me not to express satisfaction at these extremely reasonable figures.


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Big Surprises at the Rate Approval Hearing

The Water Board held its annual meeting this morning (May 15, 2009) to approve the changes to the Water/Sewer Rate Schedule for Fiscal Year 2010. As you know, WaterWatchNYC protested three major elements of the new rate structure pertaining to the DEP’s proposed “Denial of Access” and “Theft of Services” regulations. Thanks to you, the concerned, active New Yorkers who read this blog, there were many surprising changes to rate schedule announced this morning.

Firstly, as we requested, the Denial of Access notices now have to be sent out via certified mail as opposed to regular mail.

Also, there will be an appeals process put in place for New Yorkers to defend themselves from the DEP’s Theft of Services claim. We have not been informed of the details of this process but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Finally, there will be a 120-day grace period for those found to be stealing water, during which time these people will only pay half of the previously announced maximum water/sewer rate. This 120-day grace period is from the beginning of July to the end of October, not the first 120 days after each customer is found to be stealing water.

We want to commend everyone that spoke out against the unfair regulations and helped create these new caveats, especially Councilman Jim Gennaro and the other council members who joined his charge, the property owners and managers that spoke out at the City Council hearing and Water Board hearings and anyone else who voiced their concern and made a difference.

One final thing about this morning’s meeting to take note of is that the proposed 14% rate hike is actually only going to be a 12.9% rate hike. That means that starting in July, out water/sewer rate is $6.76 per hcf and not $6.82 per hcf. Sure, it may have been a tactic to publicly announce 14% when they only needed 12.9% just so they could gain public favor when they announced the lower rate. But either way, what matters is that the rate isn’t as high as initially expected and Commissioner Lawitts and Chairman Moss deserve recognition for that.

Could this be the beginning of a kinder, gentler DEP/Water Board? I guesss we’ll just have to wait and see.


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The Delaware Aqueduct Leak

The 85-mile long Delaware Aqueduct, which is the longest continuous tunnel in the world, provides New York City with about half of its drinking water and as residents of Wawarsing, New York know all too well, it has been leaking for about twenty years. Your average New Yorker doesn’t know this, so why does everyone in Wawarsing? The answer is simple: It’s leaking into their homes and yards.

Unfortunately, little can be done at this point to actually fix the leak. There is no system providing any redundancy to the Delaware Aqueduct, which means that if the water was drained from the Delaware Aqueduct’s water tunnels in order to fix the leak, there would be no other system to carry the Delaware Aqueduct’s water to NYC and New York’s water supply would be cut in half.

Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV)

Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV)

A lot has been done to try and understand the leak. For example, in June, 2003 a self-propelled, submersible Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV), specially designed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, was sent to survey the damage to the Rondout-West Branch Tunnel, where the aqueduct is currently leaking. The AUV was underwater for 16 hours, captured 160,000 digital images and measured the tunnel’s pressure and velocity. Although first thought to be a success, it turned out that the untethered vehicle passed through the tunnel too quickly to obtain any useful information.

Unfortunately, all we are left with are guesses and estimations. For years, the DEP has been estimating the leak’s loss of water at about 36 million gallons per day. For a recently published press release stating this figure, click here and scroll down a little more than halfway.

Sure, 36 million gallons of water a day is a lot of water and something needs to be done about this, but the point I would like to make here is not about the magnitude of the leak. The point I would like to make is about the DEP and the way they are handling educating the public about this leak. I already mentioned that the average New Yorker knows nothing about it, which is one way in which they’ve failed but it appears that they’ve also been spreading misinformation.

Here is an example: In this New York Times article from 2000, “the city acknowledged the leak” of “about 35 million gallons of water… flowing every day out of cracks in the Delaware Aqueduct…

but the city said that the leak, which represents 3.2 percent of the Delaware Aqueduct flow, was relatively minor and that the risk of further damage was slight. Charles G. Sturcken, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, said the amount of water escaping from the aqueduct every day was equal to the amount from seven open fire hydrants.”

There are two things I’d like to take issue with here. The first is that in this press release, the DEP claims that “one illegally opened hydrant wastes up to 1,000 gallons of water per minute.” Let’s do the math: 1000 gallons of water per minute x 60 minutes in an hour x 24 hours in a day means that one open fire hydrant uses 1.44 million gallons of water per day and seven open fire hydrants use 10.08 million gallons of water per day. Therefore, a 36-million gallon a day leak does not by any means equal seven open fire hydrants. QED.

There is a bigger issue here. In the above New York Time article, the city said that the leak “was relatively minor and that the risk of further damage was slight.” Additionally, the first press release that I linked to claims that “monitoring has shown that the leakage rate is stable and has not grown.” In 2007, the New York State Comptroller’s office released this report that claims (in the first column on page two, in the section “Audit Results – Summary”) that “over the past 18 years the estimated amount of water leakage during full tunnel flow has increased [emphasis mine] from 15-20 to 30-35 million gallons of water per day.”

Isn’t this good news, you ask. We thought that we’ve lost 36 million gallons of water per year for over 20 years as the DEP claimed but now we see that we’ve only been losing that much water for less than five years. Sure, that part of it is good news. But it also means that the leak is growing. So not only are we going to be losing more than 36 million gallons per day in the future, no efforts are being made to fix this leak!

To be fair, Anthony DePalma of the Times asked former DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd about this report when it came out. “She said it is probable that the earlier estimate of the size of the leak was inaccurate and that the true amount of water that was being lost in 1992 was about the same as today” (full article here).

I bring this issue up because it is exactly why this blog was started in the first place. The DEP has been getting away with too much for too long. The public needs needs to be educated about what’s going on so that we can make sure that our government agencies are working for us.


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Does Conservation Equal Higher Water Bills?

I would just like to quickly clarify something about the relationship between conservation, water rates and water bills.

Conservation necessitates higher water rates. There is no way around it: If we consume less of a product (in this case, water) then the product’s variable costs go down. But its fixed costs remain the same which equals a higher cost per unit.

But there is another thing to take into account. If we are conserving water, if we are truly using less of it, then even at a higher cost per unit, our total cost should go down.

Now let’s evaluate the opinion of Coucilman Vacca in the previous post, an opinion shared by many who spoke at last week’s City Council hearing. How can New Yorkers who are conserving water be seeing their water bills go up even as they are dying of dehydration?

The answer is that approximately one-third of the percentage points of the rate hike (4-5%) is going to fund things that are only remotely related to the cost of water, like the unfair rental agreement!

So to conclude: The DEP must stop blaming their rate hikes on conservation. Sure, conservation contributes but if you’re conserving water and your bill is too high, conservation is not to blame. Economics has proven that. The fault lies with the DEP and their enormous budget that continues to spiral out of control.


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The Blog Would Like to Recognize Council Member Vacca

City Council Member James Vacca

City Council Member James Vacca

There was a lot of outrage directed toward the DEP and the Water Board at the recent City Council hearing over numerous issues that we have discussed at length on this blog. Among the more prominent issues were the lease agreement, a lack of accountability and the new “Denial of Access” and “Theft of Services” charges.

One member who I would like to single out (in a good way) for his comments is Council Member James Vacca from the Bronx. His questions were tough, direct and well-researched. He called out Acting DEP Commissioner Lawitts regarding his claim that the DEP has been supporting the efforts of conservation for years. The essence of his question boiled down to the fact that the DEP blames much of the need for such a high rate increase on the fact that revenue has gone down 6% because of conservation. How can you claim support for conservation when your answer to those that conserve is to go ahead and charge them more for it?

Councilman Vacca put it more succinctly: A New Yorker could be saving water to the point where they’re dying of dehydration and their water bill would still go up.

Well said, Councilman. Well said.


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My Testimony to City Council

The following is the text of the testimony I presented earlier today at the City Council hearing regarding the proposed rate increase:

As a result of soaring costs, the Water Board is faced with yet another 14% rate increase. It is also stymied by its inability to gain access to water meters and the minuscule number of customers who are intentionally stealing water from the system. To solve this management problem and raise revenue the DEP is proposing new penalties termed “Denial of Access” and “Theft of Services.” These penalties, called rates, will subject innocent consumers to multimillion dollar fines. The following are a few examples:

  1. The owner of a three family home who has paid every water bill on time but has an obstructed meter or a cut meter seal, quite possibly cut a long time ago, will be liable for a four-year back bill in the amount of $19,751.52, even though there has been no theft of water and no attempt to steal water.
  2. The owner of a warehouse with two 8” mains and an annual water bill of $500.00 who has paid all charges on time and whose tenant inadvertently backed his truck into a water meter and destroyed the meter would be liable for a $3.6 million dollar charge. The property owner would have no way to defend herself. The fine would be the same amount if the tenant just obstructed the meter.
  3. The third case is an example of actual theft but the fine is clearly excessive. A 1,500 unit Mitchell-Lama subsidized housing complex whose superintendent opened a fire hydrant for neighborhood children or whose tenants used the building’s sprinkler system to wash their cars would be liable for a back bill in the amount of $9.3 million. The housing complex could reduce the charge if it could prove that this was the first time a fire hydrant or a sprinkler system was used for domestic purposes. For some perverse reason it would be the guilty party’s responsibility to prove it did not steal water at any earlier time. Of course when defending itself it could not offer any evidence beyond the DEP inspector’s report. Simply put, the Mitchell-Lama may not provide any evidence that is not created by the party prosecuting it.

I honestly believe that it is not the DEP staff’s intent to punish innocent people, but they believe that they need onerous regulations to convict the guilty few. That is not the way the law is supposed to operate in this county. Laws and regulations are supposed to protect the innocent and it is the DEP’s responsibility to prove guilt before defaming a customer’s character with charges of “Theft of Services,” and the accused should have the opportunity to defend himself. I respectfully request that the DEP rewrite these regulations to require the DEP to present conclusive evidence that one is guilty of theft before issuing a verdict of “Theft of Services.” Furthermore the taxpayer must have the ability to refute any charges.


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What No One Else is Telling You About Next Year’s Water Rate

Every year the Water Board raises our water rates at the request of the DEP. All the news outlets, even if they don’t bother covering the Water Board meetings during the year, attend the meeting in April when the rate hike is discussed. They make a note of how much the rates are going up by and then go to press. This is why most news outlets missed the really big news about next year’s new rate schedule.

After the DEP and Water Board discussed the 14% rate hike and all the journalists pocketed their pads and left, Steve Lawitts (Acting Commissioner of the DEP) and Alan Moss (Chair of the Water Board) rolled out two of the most anti-consumer documents ever written by the DEP. The DEP has actually been quite clever (read: devious) in putting these documents together. They’ve published the regulations governing two penalties in three different amendments, each of which on its own seems pretty harmless but all of which, when taken together, paint a pretty grim picture for New Yorkers. (Even the names they chose for these amendments–Denial of Access and Theft of Services–appear to be clever tricks. Who wouldn’t want to punish thieves? Unfortunately, actual theft has very little to to do with the Theft of Services regulations.)

Apparently the DEP has had trouble getting access to many buildings in the city and feels it necessary to set up penalties for denial of access. They’ve also defined fifteen items that qualify as “Theft of Service.” For both “Theft of Services” and “Denial of Access” (during the last water board meeting they explained that they equate denial of access with theft of service because if you don’t allow them access it must be because you are stealing water and don’t want them to know about it) stiff penalties, ranging from just over $3,500 to just under $2,000,000 annually, will be imposed. For the actual language used by the DEP in these new regulations, please see the three amendments that I have linked to below:

  1. 20090403_proposed_rate_schedule_denial_of_access_-_theft_of_service_charges_web_draft.doc,
  2. 20090406_denial-of_access_regulation_web_draft.doc,
  3. 20090406_theft_of_service_regulation_web_draft.doc

Here are the main problems with these new regulations:

  1. The DEP equates suspicion with actual guilt. There is no requirement for the DEP to prove that any theft is taking place. Theft of Services is not defined as someone stealing water but rather as a violation of one of a series of actions unrelated to actual water consumption, like breaking a meter’s DEP seal or moving or obstructing a meter. The DEP doesn’t even need to prove that the owner performed any of these actions. If they were done, it doesn’t matter who did them–a disgruntled tenant, an uncaring vandal–the owner is responsible.
  2. The magnitude of the penalty doesn’t even come close to fitting the supposed crime. The charge is based on the size of the building’s main or mains and is entirely arbitrary and is designed to bring maximum revenue to the DEP. It doesn’t reflect any form of water consumption actually used or assumed to have been stolen.
  3. In order for “Denial of Access” to apply, the DEP must simply send a letter to the owner that they have on file. For such a large penalty shouldn’t the DEP be required to go a little bit out of their way and ensure that whoever is listed as the owner on their records is actually the owner and then send the actual owner a notice of demand via certified mail with a read receipt?

To go into more detail on item number 2, the DEP published a very confusing chart detailing the penalties for both Denial of Access and Theft of Services (by their definitions). Here it is:

Meter Size –       Annual Attributed Consumption Rate (Gallons per Year)

5/8″ and less                                                                              400,000
3/4″ or more and less than 1.5″                                              1,000,000
1.5″ or more and less than 3″                                                 3,000,000
3″ or more and less than 4″                                                    5,000,000
4″ or more and less than 6″                                                  10,000,000
6″ or more and less than 8″                                                  25,000,000
8″ or more and less than 10″                                                50,000,000
10″ or greater                                                                     200,000,000

You’ll notice that the Annual Attributed Consumption Rate is given in Gallons per Year. Anyone who has ever examined their water bills will also know that the DEP charges for water based on hundred cubic feet (hcf) of water consumed not gallons, thus making it difficult to determine how much the DEP actually intends to charge for these violations. Let me make it easier by converting annual attributed consumption in gallons to an annual cost in dollars. Please note that the figures that I’m about to set forth are different than the figures presented at the last Water Board meeting. The costs that we were told about at the last Water Board meeting were given at the fiscal year 2009 water rates. These regulations go into effect in fiscal year 2010, when the rates are likely to be 14% higher. Here are the charges of the annual attributed consumption rate by meter size for fiscal year 2010:

Meter Size –                                                          Annual Attributed Cost

5/8″ and less                                                                   $        3,641.64
3/4″ or more and less than 1.5″                                                9,104.22
1.5″ or more and less than 3″                                                 27,312.79
3″ or more and less than 4″                                                    45,521.37
4″ or more and less than 6″                                                    91,042.74
6″ or more and less than 8″                                                  227,606.84
8″ or more and less than 10″                                                455,213.83
10″ or greater                                                                    1,820,855.00

That’s right, if you own a building with two 8″ mains and the DEP determines that you have denied them access for one year, you owe them just under a million dollars. What’s more, if they decide that you’re stealing water (lets say some thug broke the seal on your meter) you are going to be charged these rates going back four years unless you can prove that the violation occured more recently.

Hopefully now you understand what the DEP actually intends. To ensure that you are protected  from these unjust penalties, it is important that you join us in fighting the Water Board on this. There will be a city council hearing on Tuesday, April 28 at 10:00 am in the Council Chambers of City Hall. We hope to see you there. Additionally there will be one Water Board hearing in each of the five boroughs for citizens to express their concern over the proposed rate schedule. We expect the meeting in Manhattan on Thursday, April 30 at 5:30 pm (St. John’s University – Manhattan Auditorium, 101 Murray Street, New York, NY 10007) to be the best attended. For the most effective protest, we urge all New Yorkers to show up to this hearing. For more info regarding the hearings in the other four boroughs, click here.