Spotlight on Water Infrastructure: New York City

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

New York city's tap water has long been cherished for its quality. Take a look at the city's infrastructure to learn how it got there, and learn whether it still stands where it once did?

Try as they may, bakers in other parts of the country jut can’t seem to get the quite right. The bakers know exactly what they’re looking for. Their results are good, just not good enough. The real secret to New York City’s iconic bagels, they say, is it’s water.

Long prized for its flavor and purity, New York’s water supply has a storied history, making its way to city through a true marvel of engineering, but all is not necessarily what it once was. The city’s water begins its journey all the way upstate in the Catskill mountains. In these pristine woods, strict laws have long protected the watershed’s integrity; as a result, when the water makes its way to the city it requires little to no major treatment. From there, a complex series of tunnels and aqueducts carries it south, collecting it in a series of reservoirs just north of the city. One major component of this system is Westchester County’s Kensico Reservoir, which collects water from a number of other smaller systems, before sending it downstate to the city.

Kensico Dam in Westchester County, NY. Source: Wikimedia Foundation

On its route further south to the city, the water travels through a pair of incredible tunnels known simply as no. 1 and no. 2, though construction on a third is currently underway. Upon its completion in 1935, tunnel no. 2 was the worlds largest tunnel by diameter, at fourteen feet. The real story though, is tunnel no. 3, which has been under construction since 1970; at 6 miles in length, it was described as "the greatest nondefense construction project in the history of Western Civilization” upon its proposal in 1954. It consists of a number of tunnels stretching all the way from the Kensico Dam in the north and making its way through all five boroughs. Ultimately, it is scheduled for completion in 2020.

One of New York City water’s most famous features is its unparalleled quality. In fact, many New Yorkers prize the water for the fact that it requires no filtration, but rather pours out of the tap in stellar condition. In fact, New York’s water requires little treatment in order to meet federal standards. Nevertheless, some hidden dangers do lurk.

New York City Watertowers

A famous component of the city’s skyline are the iconic water towers that dot the tops of buildings. A requirement in buildings six stories and taller, the water towers ensure that there is proper water pressure to reach the floors below. However, these towers are not always necessarily kept at optimal conditions, and dangerous safety violations are surprisingly rife. A 2014 report by the New York Times details the unsafe condition that many water towers are now in, full of sediment, bacteria, and a host of other unsafe conditions. This is key reason that New Yorkers’ water may not be quite as safe as they think.

Ultimately, the state of New York’s water is an interesting one. While the city’s infrastructure is remarkably robust and lauded the world over, the condition of each individual’s water supply may not meet the standards of the city’s legendary water. No matter how high quality the water may begin, it condition is ultimately the sum of its parts.

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