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Fire and Water

In an age of bottled water, it is refreshing to remember that the best-tasting water in America still can be found flowing out of the taps of every kitchen sink in New York City. The water system for the nation’s largest city is an immense natural bounty that has been harvested for nearly a century by one of the greatest feats in the history of human engineering.

Originating in pristine upstate reservoirs, the City’s water is naturally filtered by granite outcroppings left by glaciers eons ago, enhancing its purity with a sweet, mineral aftertaste. As any kid who ever interrupted a stickball game to race inside for a cool drink on a hot summer day can tell you, there is no better thirst-quencher on Earth.

In 1677, a few years after the Dutch outpost on the tip of lower Manhattan was established, drinking water was distributed to the settlers through hollow logs from a handful of shallow, privately owned wells. In 1776, when the population of New York City reached 22,000, the city’s first reservoir was built on the east side of Broadway between Pearl and White Streets, serviced by wooden mains. In 1830, the system’s water arteries were replaced with 12-inch cast iron pipes.

As the City’s population approached its first million, the water became polluted and the supply was inadequate. The City decided to augment the system by impounding water from the Croton River, in what is now Westchester County. In 1842, the Old Croton Aqueduct was placed in service with a capacity of 90 million gallons per day; in the 1870s, several storage reservoirs were built in the City; in 1890, a second aqueduct (New Croton Aqueduct) came on line and the water facilities of the five boroughs were consolidated into the New York City Water System.

In 1905, its population still exploding, the City decided to develop the Catskill region as an additional water source. The Ashokan Reservoir and Catskill Aqueduct were completed in 1915, joined by the Schoharie Reservoir and Shandaken Tunnel in 1928.  Also in 1928, approval was granted to develop the upper portion of the Rondout watershed and upstate tributaries of the Delaware River. Construction of the Delaware System began in 1937, after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out an attempt by New Jersey to block the project. The Delaware Aqueduct was completed in 1944, Rondout Reservior in 1950, Neversink Reservoir in 1954, Pepacton Reservior in 1955 and Cannonsville Reservoir in 1964.

Today, the New York City Water System is served by 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes with a total storage capacity of approximately 580 billion gallons. Like the only water system comparable to it–the aqueducts built by the ancient Romans–about 95 percent of the water is delivered to the City by gravity. The water travels through two huge water tunnels, soon to be joined by a third. When it is completed in 2020 at a cost of $6 billion, the 60-mile-long Water Tunnel No. 3 will be the largest tunnel in America, delivering 1.3 billion gallons per day and enabling the City to temporarily shut down each of the older tunnels for long-needed repairs.

It would be wonderful if the story ends here, with generations of future New Yorkers ensured of access to the best water in the world. But it does not. In fact, if the natural gas industry has its way, it may not be possible for anyone to drink the elixir that is delivered by Water Tunnel No. 3 or its two brothers when No. 3 is brought on line.

If you haven’t heard of the term “fracking,” you will soon. Hydraulic fracturing—a.k.a. fracking—involves blasting water, sand and chemicals into underground rock formations to unlock the natural gas they contain. It has successfully been used, mostly without incident, in hundreds of thousands of natural gas wells.

But in a nation starved for “clean” energy, gas wells are now being drilled deeper and stretched vertically and horizontally to get at remote deposits. This expansion also has exponentially increased the risks: a single well can result in a million gallons of wastewater laced with carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium. Rural homeowners who live near recently started fracking operations have discovered that if they hold a match to their running tap water the entire sink erupts in a blaze of flames.

That’s worth repeating: because of contamination from fracking, people can’t drink their tap water but they can now set fire to it.

The presence of high-level radioactivity in fracking wastewater and the lax regulation of wastewater disposal were highlighted recently in a comprehensive investigative report published in The New York Times. Based on its review of thousands of internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and gas drillers, the Times concluded that “the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.”

As the quest for natural gas has intensified, so too has the national debate over the dangers of fracking. Ground zero in this debate now resides in the Marcellus Shale formation, a natural gas repository that stretches from West Virginia through the middle of Pennsylvania and into a wide swath of New York State.

Sitting squarely in the northeastern quadrant of the Marcellus Shale formation are the reservoirs of the New York City Water System.

It is probably not an exaggeration to say that the fate of New York City’s famous drinking water now rests with New York’s new governor, Andrew Cuomo. As this is being written, Gov. Cuomo is playing his cards close to the vest. He has not yet made clear his position on the proposed expansion of fracking in New York’s portion of the Marcellus Shale belt. When he does weigh in, Gov. Cuomo’s decision likely will tip the balance–one way or the other.

We have a helpful suggestion for Andrew as he wrestles with what will probably be his most important decision as New York’s chief executive:

Wait until the hottest day in July and pay your parents a visit at their home in Queens. Mow the lawn for them. Touch up the paint on the outside of the house. Patch up the cement work in front of the garage, chipped during some of your youthful basketball contests with your dad, Mario. Then go inside and ask for a drink of water.

Savor. Remember. Protect.

 

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