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By Glenn Scherer

3 June 02

New Yorkers who gripe about having to request a glass of water at a restaurant this spring or not being able to hose down their sidewalks or wash their cars can be glad they are not in Urinetown, the mythical locale of the hit musical that received so much attention at the Tony Awards Sunday. As one character sings:

"Twenty years we've had the drought
And our reservoirs have all dried up.
I take my baths now in a coffee cup.
I boil what's left of it for tea.
And it's a privilege to pee."

Will the drought ever get as bad in New York? A long term drought that has been with us since 1998 has become more severe after 17 recent months of below average precipitation. While three months of normal spring rainfall have brought reservoir levels up somewhat, it has done little to erase shortfalls.

And drought is not the only problem confronting New York's drinking water. Late last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came up with a plan that requires the city to protect the purity of its drinking water in a variety of ways, such as buying up additional land around reservoirs. Planners are wrestling with a complex set of issues likely to magnify New York's future water woes. Among the problems confronting the supply:

  • Threats of terrorism
  • Reservoirs polluted by increased population and urban sprawl
  • An aging infrastructure that wastes water through massive leaks
  • Users who squander million of gallons of drinking water by using it for unsuitable purposes such as washing airplanes.

Then there is the ultimate water wild card: the uncertainties of global climate change. Since the mid 1990s, city planners have pondered whether hotter, dryer weather and rising sea levels might push the already stressed urban water system over the edge.

With some experts, such as World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageloin, predicting that "the next world war will be over water," and others forecasting that the precious fluid will shortly become as valuable as oil, keeping New York City taps flowing could be one of the toughest challenges faced in this century.


Up in the tiny Catskill town of Phoenicia, New York, Harry Jameson who runs a small tubing business is feeling relieved. In April, outfitters in the area worried whether there would be enough water in Esopus Creek, which runs between two New York City reservoirs, to give tubers a good ride and dramatic scenery. Now a routine transfer of water from one reservoir to another and recent rains offer tubers, "an amazing ride," Jameson says. "It is peak right now."

How to Save Water

With a drought emergency in place, the city has placed a number of mandatory restrictions on water use. But the Department of Environmental Protection also offers the following suggestions on how you can cut water use in and around your home:

--Take short showers.
--If you prefer baths, only fill the tub halfway.
--Install water-saving toilets, showerheads and faucets. If you can't switch to a low-flow toilet, place a plastic bottle filled with water in the toilet tank to reduce the flow.
--Repair leaky faucets and turn taps off tightly. A slow drip wastes 15 to 20 gallons each day.
--Install aerators on faucets.
--Don't flush the toilet unnecessarily
--Turn off the water while shaving, washing your hands, brushing your teeth or washing dishes.
--Don't open fire hydrants.
--Do not run the dishwasher or clothes washer until they are completely full. Then, if possible, use the short cycle.
--Don't run the water to let it get cold. Instead, keep a jug of chilled water in the refrigerator.
--Use a self-closing nozzle on your hose.
--Sweep your sidewalk or driveway - don't hose them down.
--Don't overwater your lawn or plants. Water before 9 a.m. or after 7 p.m.

But despite the favorable signs, a drought considered among the worst in 40 years in our region persists. It has depleted reservoirs and seriously diminished the flow of the Delaware River (source of about half of New York's water). It prompted Mayor Michael Bloomberg to declare a drought emergency.

The dry spell is particularly disturbing because it parched us during winter. Most droughts are summer happenings, relieved by winter snows. If the rains stop again this summer, water managers could end up scrambling to find solutions to a water shortfall.

In normal times, New Yorkers feel little incentive to save water or worry about the supply. In the 1830s, New York City put laborers to work with picks, shovels and black powder to connect the city to distant streams and reservoirs and outpace a booming population's thirst with a seemingly limitless supply of water.

"Today, most of the city's water comes from the Catskill Mountains-Delaware River system," said Jeff Ryan of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. "We have 19 reservoirs there that hold 580 billion gallons of water."

In an emergency, New York can supplement that supply by tapping the Hudson River just south of Poughkeepsie (last done in the drought emergency of 1989) or by increasing its now very limited pumping from city-owned wells once controlled by the Jamaica Water Supply Company. The city could also use more of the presently underutilized Croton Water System. While no new reservoirs are planned, a huge unused water supply lies beneath the city in the Brooklyn-Queens aquifer, where rainfall is naturally stored in gaps between rock layers.


Each of these water resources is vulnerable to serious problems. First, the Catskill reservoirs. The water from these immense artificial lakes is not filtered, though it is chlorinated, before being drunk by New York City residents, and its safety has become a national security concern since September. The city has stepped up security for the water supply, according to the New York Observer and is implementing a variety of measures to protect the reservoirs from a bioterrorism attack.

Water pollution presents a long term worry. The Catskills have in recent decades come under pressure from urban sprawl. The region now contains more than 60 towns and villages and 250,000 people. The increased development allows muddy sediments to flow into reservoirs. These fine dirt particles can absorb hazardous heavy metals and prevent dangerous bacteria from being killed by chlorine. Old or improperly maintained home septic systems, of which there are an estimated 15,000 leaking in the Catskills, could eventually cause major problems as well.

The city could buy more land, perhaps up to 80,000 acres, in the Catskills watershed to insulate reservoirs against pollution. But while hikers and outdoor types would welcome such an approach, developers and towns eager for growth and tax revenue would probably fight it. A recent study by the city estimated that water rates, which are set according to a complicated menu of fees, would have to rise significantly to generate the $1.2 billion needed to purchase the land.

Another solution is the septic rehabilitation and replacement program organized by the Catskill Watershed Corporation, a not-for-profit corporation, and funded with $13.6 million from New York City. The corporation, which seeks to protect water resources and strengthen communities in the Catskill region, is working to identify and plug leaky septic tanks.

All of these efforts must ultimately satisfy the federal Environmental Protection Agency which last month proposed that it continue to exempt the city's Catskill water from filtration for five more years. The exemption saves the city huge sums of money. However, EPA did say it would require the city to take a number of steps to protect its watershed. These include additional land purchases, construction of new wastewater treatment plants and repair of septic tank systems. The public has until June 24 to submit comments on the EPA plan.


Much of the water from the Catskills-Delaware system never reaches the five boroughs. The New York Times reported in March that the 85-mile long Delaware Aqueduct, 600 feet underground and gushing with half of the city's daily 1.2 billion gallons of drinking water, leaks horrendously. One leak alone hemorrhages 6 million gallons per day. When the aqueduct is operating at full capacity, as much as 36 million gallons per day leak away from uncharted holes. That is equivalent to the total daily water use of the city of Rochester.

Repairs are planned. After 10 years of analysis -- too long some critics say -- technologies ranging from robot submarines to heat seeking aircraft and deep-sea divers will identify and plug leaks. The first stages of the project will cost $27 million.

Within its borders, the city has put a sophisticated sonar system in place to patrol 6,600 miles of water main and catch little seeps before they become big leaks.

Water metering of virtually all buildings in the city -- instituted after droughts in the 1980s -- has gone a long way to curb waste by charging for water used and helping to identify leaks. The city also paid building owners to install new fixture sthat use less water. "Our conservation efforts have been quite successful," says Jeff Ryan of the Department of Environmental Protection. "Our citywide consumption has dropped dramatically from 1.5 billion gallons per day in 1990, to 1.2 billion in 2000. That's equivalent to adding another reservoir to the system without adding any infrastructure or its accompanying costs."

The current conservation efforts, put in place because of the drought, will likely save even more water, Ryan says. Increasing water prices might reduce use more but charging high rates for something as essential as water would raise an array of social concerns.

A more palatable way to conserve would be to eliminate inappropriate uses for drinking water. The Department of Environmental Protection notes that 90 percent of the water used in the city does not go to human needs. Airports, for example, currently use tens of thousands of gallons of water a day to wash planes at regional airports. In response, the city has asked big commercial water users to begin using recycled wastewater for purposes such as cleaning and cooling.

New York is also considering saving water for the future, a system already used in arid cities like Las Vegas. The innovative plan, known as "water banking" calls for creating large underground reservoirs within porous rock near the city. Drinking water could be stored there during times of plenty, then withdrawn in times of drought.


All of these efforts could turn out to be a mere drop in the bucket if the weather goes seriously wrong for the long term. While some skeptics still scoff at climate change forecasts, a grand majority of scientists, including the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Science, agree that our climate in the future will be far different from what it was in the past.

Worldwide temperatures are expected to rise by an average of 2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the next century as the result of humankind's pumping of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. A National Center for Atmospheric Research study says that we are likely to see a warming of 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit by 2030 -- as much change as we saw in the entire last century.

Increased heat means longer summers and more demand on the water system. Increased heat also increases evaporation rates from reservoirs and streams exposed to the air, which means less water in reserve from which to draw.

A big temperature rise is also likely to affect precipitation levels, and scientists expect global warming to bring more extreme droughts and storms. But whether locally we will get more rain or less is hard to say. Global climate change computer models are still too broadly focused to give accurate precipitation predictions at a regional level. Though the fact that our current drought (1998 to present) also corresponds with the warmest global temperatures on record for the past 1,000 years, does not bode well.

Rising sea levels -- another byproduct of global warming caused by glacial melting and the fact that warmer ocean water takes up more space than cooler water -- could see oceans rise by as much as three feet in the next century. That could throw a monkey wrench into New York City's long range drought planning. If ocean waters rise significantly, salt intrusion up the Hudson River would make the emergency supply from the Chelsea Pumping Station just below Poughkeepsie undrinkable, according to a report by the Environmental Defense Fund -- though, says the report, "costly adaptations could keep the station in operation."

Similarly, salt could infiltrate the still untapped Brooklyn-Bronx aquifer, making its waters undrinkable. Or it could contaminate Long Island's underground water supply, causing Suffolk and Nassau counties to demand to be tied into the New York City water supply -- a right that they and other Hudson River Basin towns have under state law. All of these scenarios are examined in a report from the New York Academy of Science called "The Baked Apple? - Metropolitan New York in the Greenhouse".


Ultimately, a complex mix of factors could put intolerable stress on the city's drinking water. Increased demand from a growing New York City population (about 75,000 more thirsts to quench each year through 2030), a shrinking and endangered water supply, and the possible effects of climate change could conceivably lead to a regional water war.

Such conflicts over water are not new. In fact, Southeastern states are now locked in legal battles over who controls interstate rivers. Even with plenty of water to go around in the Northeast, use of the Delaware River has long been a bone of contention, with communities as far south as Philadelphia complaining about New York taking almost half of the river's waters for itself. Such complaints could wind up in the courts in future.

The remarkable achievement of the New York City water system -- well into its second century of operation -- has caused New Yorkers to take the endless gush of tap water for granted. They can probably expect there will be plenty of water for hydrants to protect against fire, for the morning coffee, to flush and for the garden box gardenias. But it will take ingenuity, foresight, and money to maintain that supply for the decades to come.


For current drought conditions see the National Drought Mitigation Center web site or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration web site or


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