Water Watch NYC

Everything you need to know about water in NYC.


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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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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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Great Minds Think Alike

Yesterday’s New York Times featured a great editorial (read it here) about where we, the residents of New York, stand in terms of the impending rate hike. The editorial touches on quite a few issues already discussed by Water Watch NYC, like the rate hike as a tactic to obtain lien sale rights as well as the DEP’s historical ineptitude and lack of oversight.

Clearly the editors over at the Times really know what they’re talking about. Either that or they’ve been reading this blog.