A safe water supply is probably the single most important function of government

building tunnel 3
Public Domain New York Board of Water Supply

New York City has some of the best drinking water in the world. It barely needs filtering or treatment at all; It comes mostly from the pristine valleys of the Catskill/Delaware watershed north of the city. The New York Times, in its great infographic about New York water, simply says “The city, state and local governments and nonprofit land conservancies own 40 percent of the land. The rest is privately owned, but development is regulated to prevent pollutants from getting into the water supply.”

Croton DamCroton Dam Spillway/Public Domain

It doesn’t describe the Supreme Court battles over the rights to the water, the communities that were eliminated, the thousands of residents who were evicted, the 2,371 bodies that were removed from cemeteries and reinterred elsewhere. But when New York wanted something it got it. According to David Soll’s Empire of Water,

Catskill residents were prohibited from hiking and hunting on thousands of acres of reservoir lands. Some residents entitled to monetary awards received next to nothing…. The scales of power were rigged in favour of New York City.

Really, the water system in New York is a monument to power, technology and will as big as anything Robert Moses did.

water pipe mapNew York Department of Environmental Protection/Public Domain

It was indeed a big system, with two giant pipes leading into the city that are now respectively 99 and 80 years old. A much needed third tunnel was started 46 years ago, and was completed as far as Manhattan under Mayor Bloomberg. Last week, the New York Times reported that Mayor Bill de Blasio was postponing its completion into Brooklyn and the Bronx to save money. From the Times:

“You look back over the last 50 years, whenever there were fiscal pressures, the unseen world of the municipal water system is where weak city leaders turned to cut spending,” said Kevin Bone, a professor of architecture at Cooper Union and an editor of “Water-Works: The Architecture and Engineering of the New York City Water Supply.” “I’m disappointed to hear that they’ve deferred it. It is symptomatic about planning for the future in America.”


After this all hit the papers, de Blasio backtracked and put the money back. However, that doesn’t change some basic facts: Politicians take our water supplies far too lightly. In Walkerton Ontario, Premier Harris cut back provincial control on water and five people died and 2500 became ill, many who will never fully recover.

In the New York Post, Nicole Gelinas compares New York City to Flint, Michigan. In the light of the back-tracking, she writes:

We can pay for this tunnel because we’re absurdly rich. But look at Flint, whose water crisis prompted the Democrats to hold a presidential debate there. Flint is terribly poor; nearly half its residents live in poverty. Flint, like New York, did have one valuable resource, though: abundant clean water.

But to save a few dollars, Flint and its state overseers threw that resource away. They connected to a new source of water that required them to prevent corrosion — and they didn’t do that part….Flint’s water crisis only becomes a federal crisis because it has no money to cover up its own incompetence — and water is a basic human right.

The entire episode, and Walkerton and Flint before it, demonstrate how people don’t treat our water supplies as we should. We waste huge amounts of it, we pollute it, we fill it with hormones and antibiotics, we let the bottled water companies make us fear it so that we buy their privatized water.

In fact, its safe delivery is probably the single most important function of government. There’s a lesson here.

A safe water supply is probably the single most important function of government
In New York City, the mayor backtracks on a stupid decision

Related Content on Treehugger.com