Education Resource

New York City's Water Maintenance

The Ashokan Reservoir (pictured) is one of several reservoirs supplying New York City with water. Photo by Patrick Stahl

The Ashokan Reservoir (pictured) is one of several reservoirs supplying New York City with water. Photo by Patrick Stahl

This article is from a student at the NYC Lab School. The Lab School participated in a series of visits with Pulitzer Center journalists leading up the High School News Literacy Summit at Baruch College in Manhattan.

New York City is one of the only cities in the United States that does not need its water to be filtered. Many people in New York City believe that the tap water in the city is already the cleanest and safest water. But is this true? What was used to build the water pipes? Is the water in New York City still clean?

New York City delivers about 1 billion gallons of drinking water to over 8 million New York City residents and to 1 million consumers who live slightly north of the City. The source of New York City's drinking water is supplied by 19 reservoirs and three lakes 125 miles north-west of New York City. The wastewater treatment system consists of: over 7,400 miles of sewer pipes; 135,000 sewer catch basins; over 495 permitted outfalls for discharge of combined sewer overflows; 95 waste water pumping stations that transport it to 14 wastewater treatment plants located throughout the five boroughs.

The New York City's Department of Environmental Protection and Bureau of Wastewater Treatment maintain the facilities related to treatment of sewage. They operate with a budget of $340 million, and an annual capital budget of $200 million. 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater are processed at the treatment plants; the plants release the wastewater into waterways surrounding New York City after the treatment is completed.

New York City's drinking water is coming in unfiltered very quickly from a very far place with many different sources; is the drinking water still clean after all the traveling? The wastewater treatment system seems to function on a very complicated network; does everything run smoothly as planned?

New York City is required to test for lead in tap water each year; in tests conducted from June to September in 2010, 30 of 222 samples exceeded allowable lead levels. The percentage of lead in the city's water has increased by 9 percent in one year. The federal Environmental Protection Agency defines 15 or more parts per billion as an elevated health threat. The tests have found levels in the range of 16 to 30 parts per billion. However, the city's health commissioner, Thomas Farley says: "The elevations seen in the city's recent tests have been too small to pose clear threats."

Farrel Sklerov, a spokesman for the city's Department of Environmental Protection said that lead levels in tap water have been dropping, because the environmental department adds a food preservative to the water to create a protective coating on pipes and prevent the leaching of metals. About 100,000 of 835,000 water customers still have lead pipes, and because water sits in those pipes for several hours, it is likely to have lead in it. Residents are advised to reduce their exposure by letting the tap water run for about 30 seconds until it is cold because hot water absorbs lead more easily.

Many New Yorkers brag about the city's water - it is so pure that it doesn't need to be filtered and it tastes better than bottled water. So it may be surprising, even insulting, to the residents that federal officials are worried that the water is getting muddier and muddier and may have to be completely filtered, which could cost billions of dollars. The cause of this is turbidity, which makes water cloudy and interferes with chlorination to eliminate contaminants. Changing weather patterns and increasing runoff from land development upstate is causing turbidity levels in water to rise.

The solution to this is to dump 16 tons of chemical a day into the water supply as emergency measures to meet federal water standards. These chemicals called Alum, or aluminum sulfate, have no general impact on the water quality. It draws together small particles, causing them to clump up and settle before the water enters the distribution system, therefore solving the problem of turbidity. James M. Tierney, an assistant state attorney general had said that the continued use of alum "would appear to indicate seriously deficient conditions in the Catskill portion of the New York City Watershed" and turned its reservoirs into "a chemical sludge settling pond."

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is the agency that manages the wastewater treatment system in New York City. This agency has been under court supervision since 2001 because workers routinely ignored federal environmental laws, risking the safety of the city's water supply. During the 2003 black out, the DEP had failed to maintain and repair backup generators at several waste-treatment plants leading to the illegal discharge of about 30 million gallons of untreated sewage in the East River. The court supervision order was extended in 2006, but ended recently in 2009 when significant improvements in quality control and workplace safety were demonstrated. This eight-year, $160 million dollar effort to overhaul the way the DEP trains its employees ensures their safety and to monitor its own infrastructure. During this period, officials fixed 44,000 discrete problems throughout the system such as improved storage for dangerous chemicals to protect against accidents. This change had vastly changed the DEP which was done to ensure our water system keeps clean and the waste-treatment system in check.

"The Department of Environmental Protection performs more than 900 tests on a daily basis from up to 1,000 sampling locations throughout New York City" says Caswell F. Holloway, "The sampling stations are 4 1/2 feet above ground and are made of heavy iron, the total cost of these stations was approximately $11 million." The success of this performance is one of the main reasons as to why New York City remains one of the largest cities that is not required to filter its drinking water. "New York City's Watershed Protection Program had been so successful that the United States Environmental Protection Agency awarded us a 10-year Filtration Avoidance Determination (FAD) in 2007. Though we had some trouble regarding water issues right before the renewal of the exemption from water filtration, the problem was easily resolved."

Clean drinking water is a service that needs to be fulfilled by the government. The government should respect the right to clean drinking water; they should not allow companies to sell filtered water as goods. Water should not have to go through the long and expensive process of extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. Water should be extracted, filtered, and then distribute to the residents by sinks, water fountains and other to other methods where anyone can easily obtain.

Clean drinking water in New York City is neither a shortage nor a scarcity. But is the clean water in New York City really as good people say it is? Even though the City tries to maintain and sample its water, according to news reporting and other media, the city's tap water is getting dirty slowly. Sooner or later, the city will have to filter the city's water and continue to maintain the sources of water before distributing to consumers.