Lessons of History: Hurricane Sandy Tests New York City’s Water Infrastructure

by James Salzman—environmental law professor at Duke University and the author of Drinking Water:  A History

As the fury of Hurricane Sandy crashed into New Jersey last month, Facebook postings along the storm’s path recounted the collapse of one service after another – no lights, no heat, no phones, no subway, and ultimately no internet. Amidst the darkened buildings and flooded subways of Lower Manhattan, one service remained largely intact and, as a result, largely ignored. Despite the terrible disruptions to everyday life caused by Sandy, water continued to flow in most places. As Mayor Bloomberg confidently tweeted, “NYC Tap Water is absolutely safe to drink.”

New Yorkers could take comfort that their tap water had survived the worst storm in the city’s history. The media hardly noticed and this is not surprising, for we take easy access to safe, reliable drinking water for granted. But it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, what’s truly remarkable is that the one problem New York did not face after Sandy was unsafe water, since this has plagued the city for most of its history.

From prehistoric times, human settlements have needed to ensure the provision of safe drinking water, whether through the cisterns of Masada or the aqueducts of Rome. As communities grow, however, the very reason for their location comes under threat as pollution makes the local water unsafe to drink. This is still the case in much of the developing world, where one billion people lack access to safe water, and certainly was for much of American history.

The first Europeans to live in Manhattan, the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, collected rainwater in cisterns and shallow wells. Most of the settlement’s water came from a spring-fed pond in lower Manhattan later known as the “Collect.” As New York’s population increased, however, poor sanitation and effluent from tanneries and slaughterhouses fouled the local water sources. Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist visiting the city in 1748, in a remark Rodney Dangerfield would have loved, observed that the well water was so terrible horses from out of town refused to drink it.

The failure of public wells and the Collect to provide adequate clean water, coupled with concern over water to fight fires, made clear that a more secure supply was needed. In 1774, the city approved an ambitious plan for a steam engine-powered waterworks that would pump water throughout the city in aqueducts similar to those of Rome. Construction commenced but, as the colonies descended into the Revolutionary War, the British occupied the city and promptly destroyed the waterworks construction.

Two decades hence, New York Assemblyman Aaron Burr teamed with Alexander Hamilton, whom Burr would later kill in a duel, to solve New York’s water problems. The state legislature authorized the Manhattan Company to raise $2 million to “furnish and continue a supply of pure and wholesome water sufficient for the use of all such citizens” in New York. Burr didn’t care about providing water, though. He invested most of the money in local businesses. The water company laid only twenty-three miles of pipe in three decades and eventually gave up all pretense, developing into the powerful Chase Manhattan Bank. In homage to its origins, the Chase corporate logo features a stylized cross section of a wooden water pipe.

By the first decades of the 19th century, New York continued to suffer from cholera outbreaks and fires. Newspapers described Manhattan Company water (still drawn from the polluted Collect) as an “abominable fluid.” Eventually, a massive public initiative built a series of reservoirs far north of the city and piped water into the five boroughs. It was these gravity feeds and distance from the coast that preserved New York’s waters from Sandy’s wrath. Today, New York delivers over one billion gallons daily that originate in the protected Delaware and Catskills watersheds, over 100 miles northwest of the city.

New York’s drinking water story has been heroic – from the vile Collect water to safe tap water today that routinely outperforms bottled water in blind taste tests – making the resilience of the city’s water system in the face of Sandy a fitting epilogue. But the story is still unfolding, and our cities’ drinking water remains under serious threats from sources both less obvious and less direct than natural disasters.

For starters, the system infrastructure is in a state of rapid decay. More than ten percent of the nation’s water is lost through leaks. On average, a major water pipe bursts somewhere in the country every two minutes. Nor should this be surprising. Most of our water systems were built decades ago. Buried beneath streets and fields, the average citizen doesn’t give these pipes a second’s thought until they burst, and faucets run dry. The EPA estimates that $335 billion will be needed simply to maintain the current water infrastructure over the next few decades, not to mention upgrading the system. Expensive, but what’s the option?

To date, the primary option has been to bury our heads in the sand and do very little. We are starving our water system of funds, and have been doing so for years. Part of the reason is the invisibility of the water system and taking it for granted, part is the lack of public understanding over how antiquated our infrastructure has become, and part is the stubborn refusal to pay for what the system really costs. Water has always been cheap and should remain so, come hell or high water.

And both hell and high water may well be in store with climate change, a further challenge. In addition to increasing water scarcity in some regions of the country, which will pit cities’ consumption against agricultural demands, climate models predict storms of greater intensity. Sandy’s uncommon power from combined storm systems could well become the new reality, placing public services under regular threats of deluge. We may have no choice but to harden our infrastructure as hundred-year storm events become commonplace.

Despite these challenges, it’s important to recognize the scale of achievement in a clear glass of tap water. We enjoy more access to safe drinking water today than ever before. This was not inevitable. For most of human history, and in many parts of the world today, clean drinking water isn’t natural or normal. Recognizing its critical importance, New York made major water investments over the past 180 years that have stood the test of time.

If we can protect our drinking water, we can protect ourselves from water, too. It took time and some false starts, but the commitment, ingenuity and large-scale investments that safeguarded drinking water supplies in the 19th and 20th centuries will prove just as necessary to safeguard our cities and coasts. The history of New York City’s water system could serve as an inspiration to the protection of our communities into the future.

Publisher’s Note:  A shorter version of this article appeared on the op-ed page of the Washington Post on November 9, 2012.

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About safedrinkingwaterdotcom

McGuire is an environmental engineer and writer. He has worked in the drinking water community for over 40 yrs
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