Saturday, March 28

New York: a megacity's mega water nightmare

Wawarsing resident David Sickles in his basement, waist-deep in water.
David Sickles
The nightmare began quietly enough. From an Al Jazeera America August 4, 2014 report (Why New Yorkers Should Be Worried About Their Water Supply) by Aaron Ernst and Christof Putzel: 
[New York City's water infrastructure] is "... the largest, single capital investment that New York City has made, including the subway systems."
That constant investment has been needed to keep up with the explosive growth of the city. In 1930s, and again running out of water, New York City built what many consider to be the crown jewel of its water infrastructure: the Delaware Aqueduct.
Finished in 1945, this deep rock pressure tunnel tapped into the Delaware watershed and was designed to deliver up to 850 million gallons of water per day to New York City. On any given day, it delivers anywhere between 50 to 80 percent of the city’s water.
But over the years, the residents in a neighborhood of the small upstate town of Wawarsing, located over the aqueduct, began to notice something odd. Whenever it rained, roads backed up, basements flooded. 
At first no one wanted to consider the unthinkable. Eventually, New York's water authority confronted the truth.  The aqueduct had sprung massive leaks, to the tune of up to 35 million gallons a day -- enough to supply nearly half a million people a day with water.  That wasn't the worst of it. Undertaking repairs isn't even the worst;
But while the aqueduct is wasting twice the amount daily that the [massive July 2014] UCLA water main break did in its entirety, the waste isn’t what worries Bill Wegner, the staff scientist at Riverkeeper, a watchdog organization that monitors the health of the watersheds that feed New York City.
"Worst-case scenario is you'd have a catastrophic failure,” he said. "If the tunnel, which is under pressure, were to collapse, the whole aqueduct would have to be shut down. Fifty percent of the city’s water supply would cease to exist."
A 2001 report published by Riverkeeper concluded that New York City’s reservoirs would run out of water in just 80 days.

"If you do the math and figure out that the city's going to be hurting for water for 50 percent of its consumers, it is really a catastrophic event," Wegner said.

And the city would be out of water for years, the amount of time experts estimate it would take to make the repairs, according to the Riverkeeper report.
Of course the water authority is no longer sitting on its hands. As the Al Jazeera report details, a very expensive, lengthy, and complicated project, which includes construction of a bypass tunnel (started in November 2013), and expanding water delivery systems from other water sources, has been underway. The estimated finish date for the bypass will be 2021, but that'll only be completing one phase of the all-over project; then the Delaware aqueduct has to be shut down and dewatered in order to fix its leaks and connect the new bypass to it.

Until then the nightmare hangs over New York City like a Damocles sword.

I've been learning that big water problems are not confined to arid or semi-arid regions, nor do they necessarily follow a typical drought pattern or even a water misuse pattern. But this situation with New York went on for a long time before it was addressed despite vociferous complaints from state residents like David Sickles.  Why?  Because Warwasing doesn't have clout in the Borough of Manhattan's city hall or the state's capital.


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