March 27, 2008, The New York Observer - Steve Cohen's Blog: The Good News About New York City's Water

The Good News About New York City's Water

It's a graphic example of how sustainable development works

link to full article at the New York Observer here:

The Good News About New York City's Water
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With all the furor over the economy, congestion pricing and the philandering ways of New York’s governors, we forget sometimes that we are actually capable of acting like a real community and building for the future. I say sometimes, because, while this city has a magnificent system for delivering fresh water to its people, it has one of the worst solid waste management systems imaginable. Today let’s focus on the good news, New York City’s water supply system. I’ll get to the garbage soon enough.

New York gets its water from two upstate reservoir systems that it owns and operates. To keep the sources of water clean, the city works upstate to purchase land and ensure best-management practices by local farmers and other residents. According to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s 2006 water supply report, “the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has developed a $19.5 billion Capital Investment Strategy for the next decade, the majority of which will be used to upgrade and add to existing infrastructure and guarantee that we can fulfill our mandate of delivering quality drinking water to New York for years to come.”

New York’s water system provides more than 1.1 billion gallons of water daily to around eight million New York City residents and one million residents in Westchester, Putman, Ulster and Orange counties.

The two tunnels that carry our water to us represent one of the most impressive public works projects in the world. Water Tunnel No. 1 was completed 1917, Water Tunnel No. 2 was completed 1936 and Water Tunnel No. 3 began 1970, and with luck will be completed in 2020. According to the water industry’s Web site:

New York's City Tunnel No. 3 is one of the most complex and intricate engineering projects in the world. Constructed by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the tunnel will eventually span 60 miles and is expected to be complete by 2020.

One reason we are building a new water tunnel is the hope that over the next century we can repair the other two tunnels. Some experts estimate that about a third of the water that we draw from our upstate system leaks before it gets to our faucets. In fact, since the late 1980’s, the Delaware Aqueduct, a piece of vital infrastructure that carries half of the city’s water, has been leaking between 10 and 36 million tons of water each day. The city is not waiting for the third water tunnel to be completed to plug this leak—a new project was just started to fix this problem.

While we may lose a lot of our supply, the quality of our water is quite good. As Elizabeth Royte wrote last year in her wonderful New York Times piece, “On the Water Front”:

The upstate water is of such good quality, in fact, that the city is not even required to filter it, a distinction shared with only four other major American cities: Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Ore. New Yorkers drink their water from Esopus Creek, from Schoharie Creek, from the Neversink River, straight from the city’s many reservoirs, with only a rough screening and, for most of the year, just a shot of chlorine and chasers of fluoride, orthophosphate and sodium hydroxide.”


Story continues below map.

The city’s filtration exemption from the E.P.A. saves it from the cost of building a $6 billion to 8 billion water filtration plant for the water that comes from the Catstkill and Delaware watersheds located west of the Hudson River. It would cost about $1 billion a year to pay the debt service and operating costs of that plant. A majority of our water comes from west of the Hudson. The rest of our water comes from the Croton Watershed up in Westchester and Putnam counties. Currently the city is spending over $1 billion to build a water filtration plant under the Moshulu Golf Course in the Bronx to protect our water supplies that come from east of the Hudson.

The city is working hard to protect the waters it doesn’t need to filter. According to the commissioner of New York's Department of Environmental Protection, Emily Lloyd:

In order to preserve this remarkable asset, and prevent the need for an expensive filtration plant for the Catskill and Delaware water systems, the city enforces an array of environmental regulations designed to protect water quality while encouraging reasonable and responsible development in the watershed communities. It also invests in infrastructure—such as wastewater treatment facilities and septic systems—that shield the water supply, while working with its upstate partners to develop comprehensive land-use practices that curb pollution at the water’s source.

The city has spent over $1 billion during the past decade in the communities near the water supply to keep development from ruining the water. This is of course cheaper then the billion dollars per year that a filtration plant would cost.

Most of New York City’s water supply is protected and filtered by the natural processes of upstate ecosystems. To environmental economists, nature’s work that protects our water is an “environmental service.” Because the price of a filtration plant is known, we can estimate the monetary value of the services provided to filter our water. This comes to $1 billion per year minus the $100 million or so we spend each year to protect the upstate ecosystems. This is $900 million a year of found money that we will lose if we don’t protect these fragile ecosystems. It’s a graphic illustration of the point that what is good for the environment will often be good for our bank account. Sustainable development is more than a slogan—it is a principle of good government and sound fiscal management. New York’s water is a good news story that will only stay good if we pay attention and protect it from harm.

I am grateful for the research assistance of Sara Schonhardt, Master of International Affairs student, Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

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