Landscape | Fall 2016 Issue

New York’s Water Troubles

New York doesn't face California's drought, but it has water troubles of its own.

By Kenny Herzog

Manhattan and its four sister boroughs have their problems: 27,000-plus people per square mile elbow one another for resources and space, puzzle over strange emanations from the sewers and wage an ongoing campaign against crime and crooked politics.

Yet when its citizens turn on their faucets, they benefit from some of the cleanest, unfiltered natural water in the nation. That’s the result of a sustained commitment to infrastructure, and it has led to complacency — at least compared with the growing vigilance of drought-conscious California.

No more.

“California[ns] may point their fingers at [New York City] that we’re not doing so much in conservation, but that’s not really true,” said Cooper Union professor of architecture Kevin Bone, who’s also director of the school’s Institute for Sustainable Design and a principal at the architectural firm of Bone/Levine. While acknowledging that his state is not “up against the same limits California has,” he argues, “New York’s done a huge amount in terms of reducing its water use and conserving the water it has.”

Bone’s SoHo headquarters is tiled with black-and-white prints of the underground tunnels and dams that contribute to NYC’s bounty. The office itself is lean and functional, not unlike the tall and slender Bone himself. As he discusses New York’s water issues, he highlights both parallels and differences to the issues faced by Los Angeles. Both rely on a web of infrastructure to import water and, though Los Angeles is more prone to drought, both cities are coming to see the primacy of conservation.

“You have to see conservation as a global or holistic strategy,” added Bone, who co-authored and edited 2006’s topic-essential Water-Works: The Architecture and Engineering of the New York City Water Supply. “You’re not just conserving water. You’re also conserving infrastructure dollars, energy use… you have to see that all as part of a system.”

New York’s system is a minor miracle of small-town and big-city cooperation; bipartisanship; and the kind of stubborn American determinism that is so often associated with the settlement of the western United States. After nearly two centuries of relying on well water and conducting crude experiments in early reservoirs, the city began constructing more sophisticated pipelines during the 1840s to import water from north of its borders, starting with Westchester County and eventually via the mountainous — and virtually unpolluted — Catskills region farther upstate. In total, the system that supplies New York’s water comprises 19 reservoirs, three main aqueducts and a vast network of tunnels — painstakingly constructed over more than 150 years.

“The older history is fairly contentious,” Bone said. “But from about 1840 on, New York City has aggressively designed, built and maintained really good structures to collect and deliver quality water. And it’s been a priority through conflict. We’ve always had something of this agenda to say, ‘This is a critical resource for the well-being of the city. What are we going to do to keep the water flowing for the next 100 years?’”

That’s been a particularly pressing question over the past decade, as cracks in the city’s aging subterranean aqueduct system have threatened to jeopardize its sustainability. Particularly worrisome is the Delaware Aqueduct, which supplies more than 50% of New York’s water supply. Leaks are wasting more than 30 million gallons a day.

So in 2013, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) broke ground on a $1.5 billion restoration and bypass project to reinforce tunnel trouble spots and permanently reroute water around them. (A corresponding project connecting the Catskill and Delaware Aqueducts, completed last year, claimed two lives.) Construction is scheduled for completion in 2020, but as it approaches its conclusion, the Delaware Aqueduct will have to be shut down for anywhere from six months to a year and a half.

“The general thinking is you push more water through the Catskill Aqueduct, you take everything you can out of the [Delaware] systems,” Bone said, “but I don’t know that we’re ever going to be at a point where we’re taking no water from the western side of the Catskill mountains.”

Until that time, the onus falls on New York to nudge its residents toward more conscientious conservation habits, or even the notion of temporarily gulping down glasses of cloudier-than-normal H2O. “It’s entirely possible,” Bone said, though he speculates that comparatively impure water may be less likely than the odds of a devastating infrastructural failure — be it construction-related or even seismically induced — leaving New York bereft of half its supply. “It would be interesting to see what kind of document exists in some commissioner’s desk about what we’re going to do when we have half as much water.”

Still, Bone remains optimistic not only about New York’s wherewithal for preventing interruptions in its reservoir flow and persevering in the face of the growing impacts of climate change, but also that the city’s efforts can serve as a model for others.

“We are all connected, especially in water,” said Bone. The issue may be “infinitely more complicated” in Los Angeles, where overall supply is threatened, but these very different regions, he stressed, have one thing in common: Water, once delivered by planners and their grand visions, now requires the collaborative work of those who use and supply it.

“I think it’s important that, like in the better visions of architecture nowadays, it’s not just an architect who comes up with an idea and then the engineers implement it,” Bone said. “It’s the architects and the farmers and the automobile and plastic manufacturers. All these people get together, who are constituents in the water puzzle, and say, ‘How can we do it better?’”

Kenny Herzog

Kenny Herzog

Kenny Herzog has covered media, pop culture, politics and more for 15-plus years on local, regional and national levels. He is currently Digital Managing Editor for Westchester and Hudson Valley magazines in New York, and contributes writing to Rolling Stone, New York magazine and others. And he will never take the NY water he drinks for granted again.

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