Water Watch NYC

Everything you need to know about water in NYC.


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NYC Faces Potential Water Crisis in Wake of Failed Conservation Efforts

In preparation for the Delaware Aqueduct shutdown, several initiatives to reduce water consumption have been proposed for New York City.  Cutting off 50% of the water supply will be a major crisis, with catastrophe looming if a drought should coincide with the shutdown.  The Water Board states that they are confident that the Delaware Aqueduct shutdown will not result in a NYC drought, but nevertheless recently redefined drought to mean  insufficient water reaching the city, opposed to the old definition meaning insufficient water in the reservoirs.

The DEP was counting on conservation as the cheapest and most viable solution to cope with a severely diminished water supply, but it’s not working.  Efforts are not being taken seriously, and Department of Environmental Protection is worried that reducing consumption will reduce revenue.  As shown in the accompanying graphs, revenue in recent years has increased while consumption has remained stagnant.

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The Toilet Replacement Program, introduced in 2014 as part of the Multifamily Conservation Program, offered  vouchers to purchase high efficiency toilets.  However, the program fell short of  achieving substantial conservation as the group of eligible recipients is far too small.  In order to qualify, customers must be on a flat-rate billing.  However, most New Yorkers use a metered billing system, paying per usage.  This is no coincidence.  The DEP strategically designed a program in which they appear to be promoting conservation, while  insuring revenue increases.

The DEP boasts how water consumption has dropped for municipal properties such as public schools and government buildings.  The only reason consumption dropped is because these buildings pay a flat-rate and were eligible for toilet replacement.  Although consumption has dropped in these buildings due to toilet replacement, leaks and running faucets are likely to go unnoticed, as they make no impact on their  water bill.  Government-owned property should be held accountable for water usage and billed based upon consumption.  Moreover, to successfully conserve water, non-flat rate payers should be able to participate in conservation  programs.

It is evident that the DEP does not want people to save money by saving water.  It’s about time Mayor de Blasio and the DEP recognize that in the long run, water security for New York City is more important than revenue.  Without proper conservation methods in place and major modifications made to plumbing in all buildings, New York City will not be prepared for the staged drought at the time of the Delaware Aqueduct shutdown.  If conservation is taken seriously, the shutdown will only pose minor inconvenience.  If it is not, the drought will be catastrophic.


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Repairing the Delaware Aqueduct: When Will New York City be Ready?

The Delaware Aqueduct, completed in 1944, is the longest tunnel in the world.  This 85 mile stretch of steel and concrete transports 50% of New York City’s water supply downstate from several reservoirs in the Delaware Watershed.  In 1991, a major leak was discovered near Newburgh, but the Department of Environmental Protection did not release a remediation plan until 2010.  In the interim, the DEP tested and surveyed the aqueduct, determining that between 15 million and 35 million gallons of water were being lost each day.  The leak was caused by the unstable geologic features through which this segment of the tunnel passed under the Hudson River.  The tunnels were bored through faulted limestone, which did not provide enough support.  Thus, cracks developed and leaks sprung.

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Source:  Upstater Magazine

The DEP’s 2010 repair plan was to construct a bypass tunnel.  Since it still must travel under the Hudson River through unstable limestone, the 2.5 mile bypass is to be lined with 9,200 linear feet of steel, while the original tunnel was only lined with 1,900.  Between 2013 and 2016, the shafts on each side of the tunnel were completed, and a high-tech boring machine was constructed.  Just this year, the boring machine (named after Nora Stanton Blatch Deforest Barney, the first woman in the U.S. to earn an engineering degree) and 40-foot sections of steel liner were delivered to the site where the project will begin in Newburgh.  Boring the hole for the bypass tunnel is projected to take two years, during which the leaking segment of the aqueduct will remain in use.  After completion, it will take 6 to 8 months to shut down the current aqueduct, drain it, connect the bypass, and get everything back up and running.  The entire project was originally scheduled for completion in 2019, but according to the DEP, the tunnel alone will not be finished until 2022.  If all goes as currently scheduled, the earliest the water will flow through the bypass tunnel and into the city is 2023.

Because the Delaware Aqueduct delivers half of New York City’s water supply, a complete shutdown for several months poses issues.  To ensure that the city has access to sufficient, reliable water during the shutdown, the Water for the Future program was developed.  Under this initiative, the Catskill Aqueduct was to be repaired starting in 2016 to increase capacity by 30 to 40 million gallons per day.  The project, now scheduled to begin in 2018, requires three separate 10-week shutdowns, and is projected to be completed by 2020.  Rehabilitating the Queens Groundwater System is also on Water for the Future’s agenda.  This water source is expected to provide over 30mgd, but as of June 2017, the only progress the DEP has made was holding public meetings regarding the intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement.  The proposal was not well received by Long Island officials, who are concerned that re-opening these wells may damage aquifers that provide water to Nassau and Suffolk counties.

The Water for the Future program includes plans for a filtration plant, making water from the Croton Watershed available in New York City.  Construction of the Croton Water Filtration Plant was completed in 2015, and it has supplied water to parts of Manhattan and the Bronx ever since.  This extra water will be crucial during the period when the Delaware Aqueduct water supply is cut off.  Normally, the Croton Watershed provides about 10% of the city’s water daily.  The Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that in times of drought or emergency, in this case the Delaware Aqueduct shutdown, it is capable of providing 30% of the city’s water.  Lastly, the DEP has been implementing conservation initiatives in the city, so New Yorkers become dependent on less water.  The 2013 Water Demand Management Plan, created in light of the Water for the Future program, details the implementation of water management projects throughout New York City.  These 21 initiatives include municipal, residential, and non-residential water efficiency; water distribution optimization, water supply shortage management, and upstate water conservation.  Completion is aimed for 2021.

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Data Source:  NYC Open Data

Despite these efforts to prepare for the shutdown, it is questionable whether New York City is ready for this project.  Although water consumption per capita in New York City has dropped over the years (30% since the 1980s), the population has increased.  Since the Water Demand Management Plan was implemented in 2013, the city has seen slight fluctuations in daily consumption, and no substantial reduction, as shown in the accompanying graph. Mayor de Blasio has a track record of postponing work on water-related projects, such that budgets can be realigned to keep water rates down.  However, without improved water infrastructure New York City will be very ill-equipped in the event of a drought or natural disaster.  It is crucial that projects and conservation initiatives are brought to fruition, because at its current rate of consumption, New York City is not prepared for the Delaware Aqueduct shutdown.  Ideally, water consumption must be cut by 40% before the shutdown occurs.  We are in a precarious position, in which we can afford neither to push the completion date of the repairs farther out, nor to begin the project without proper conservation methods and supplementary water sources secured.  It is imperative that action is taken soon to ensure New Yorkers have a reliable water source for years to come.


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Tunnel No. 3: A Huge Success Waiting to Fail

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We finally have a reliable system of water distribution in New York City. But don’t forget what our “reliable” system itself relies on.

Water comes to New York City in two steps. Yesterday, the second step of our waters’ journey became much safer, more reliable, and more sustainable. The completion of Water Tunnel No. 3 was a huge success for New York. With the addition of Tunnel No. 3, the DEP can now inspect and repair Tunnel No. 1, reduce leakage, and assure that our city’s water tunnels will last long into the future.

But what about the FIRST STEP in the water journey??? Before the city’s water ever touches the now “reliable” three tunnel system, it must travel over 80 miles from the Catskill Mountains and Delaware River through the Catskill and Delaware Aqueducts. And unfortunately, this part of the journey isn’t reliable.

There are two known leaks in the Delaware Aqueduct that collectively release between 33 and 37 million gallons of water per day (out of the 500 million gallons of daily flow). These leaks not only waste a significant amount of valuable water (enough to provide water for 300,000 people per day), but also cause drinking water contamination and flooding in local homes.

The DEP has known of these leaks since the 1990’s, but very little has been done to repair them. Before anything can happen, inspections must be completed and an alternative bypass tunnel must be built so that water can continue being delivered to the city throughout the repair process.

In 2010 the DEP released a plan for a $1.2 billion, 3 mile bypass tunnel to be built around the leaks. Construction was set to begin in January of this year, but progress has been slow and it will take years before any real repairs can begin. The DEP continues to roll back the start date.

With the Delaware Aqueduct supplying 50-80% of NYC’s water, it is imperative that these repairs are carried out. Because what’s the point of a brand new city tunnel if we can’t get any water to it?


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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.