Water Watch NYC

Everything you need to know about water in NYC.


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drought20161104bigThe entire New York State is now on “Drought Watch”. The category is merely  advisory, and does not mandate conservation. I hope the residents of NYC appreciate how the DEP’s large water reserves insulating them from what could be a major inconvenience. Enjoy the sunny days, but pray for rain in the Watershed.


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NYC Drought

New York’s reservoir level has dropped to 57.9% of capacity. Back in the eighties the Water Board issued droughts warnings when the reservoir level fell below 60%. Due to years of water conservation, NYC is sitting pretty, while the rest of the North-East is experiencing a major drought. How low can it go before the

To be honest the city is reluctant to declare a drought in the autumn, when there is a good chance that the winter precipitation will refill the reservoirs.

The questions is “How low can it go before a drought is declared”.


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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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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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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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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?