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The Importance of New York City’s Water Infrastructure

Here in New York City, we had a fascinating week in the politics of our water supply. On April 5th, New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer wrote an excellent, well-sourced, and somewhat depressing article about the de Blasio administration’s defunding of the last stages of the city’s third water tunnel. The third tunnel is needed in order to gradually close the other two older tunnels for repair, ensuring the city’s water supply. According to Dwyer’s initial story:

“The entire Brooklyn-Queens leg of the new tunnel was scheduled to be finished by 2021, with $336 million included in the capital budget in 2013 by Mr. de Blasio’s predecessor, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, for whom completion of the third tunnel was the most urgent and expensive undertaking of his tenure. But last year, Mr. de Blasio’s administration, eager to keep a lid on water and sewer rates that had grown by an average of 8 percent annually under Mr. Bloomberg, moved financing for the third tunnel to other projects, Amy Spitalnick, a de Blasio spokeswoman, said. The city intends to finish the remaining portions of the tunnel sometime in the 2020s, but it has not set a date for completion nor allocated money in the budget to carry out the work.”

The negative reaction to the Times story by the city’s movers and shakers, and by many environmentalists, was swift and overwhelming. Flint, Michigan’s drinking water disaster has increased the attention paid to water supply. Moreover, the city has already invested billions of dollars over many decades to build this tunnel. We are nearing the end of the project; why stop it now? To many people outside of City Hall, Mayor de Blasio’s decision made no sense. According to the mayor, the newspaper story and the views of his staff quoted in the story were in error. The day after the first story, Mr. Dwyer filed a second about the restoration of capital funds to complete the water tunnel. As Dwyer wrote in his second story:

“Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday that he was going to add $305 million to New York City’s capital budget to speed up work on Water Tunnel No. 3 so that it would be able to serve Brooklyn and Queens…The mayor’s announcement came just hours after The New York Times reported that his administration last year had removed all money to pay for the tunnel and had also replaced the announced 2021 deadline for completion with a commissioner’s “guess” that it would be ready for service sometime in the mid-2020s…The simplest part of the mayor’s day may have been finding money to pay for the tunnel, not an especially difficult task in a budget swollen with revenues from a booming city economy. Far more awkward was the struggle by him and his aides to argue that they had never flagged in their support for the tunnel project, and to avoid an unflattering comparison to Mr. de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, who drove progress on the construction after work on the tunnel had moved sluggishly for decades.”

The mayor maintained that his staff did not explain the budget properly. This explanation was almost as disheartening as the decision. First, from the outside it looks like the mayor made the decision to delay the capital expenditure as part of a move to keep water rates from rising too quickly. It was a poor decision and not simply an error of communication. Perhaps he always intended to restore funding at some point—the administration did fund the design work for the project—but it is clear his team was playing games with the water project’s capital budget. Blaming your staff is the opposite of “the buck stops here.” Even if his real intent was miscommunicated, the mayor’s job is to take responsibility and say: “I made a mistake and I moved quickly to fix it.” A leader does not blame the people that work for him.

But leadership and accountability aside, the real lesson of this water controversy was to reinforce the growing visibility and importance of the water supply issue. New York City has a magnificent system of water supply. It is an example of farsighted long-term leadership and investment without which the modern city of New York could never have been built. It takes advantage of ecosystems, gravity, and best management practices to deliver high-quality and relatively low-cost water to New York. However, like the city’s subway system and electric grid, it is old infrastructure that is decaying and its maintenance is essential to the transition to a renewable resource-based economy.

High quality infrastructure is not inexpensive but must be seen as an investment in the future. The problem for political decision makers is that reelection is often more important to them than some abstract notion of “the future.” But the future can happen quickly and without warning. And water resources are not optional for a functioning city. All over America we see older cities with crumbling infrastructure in need of reinvestment, and in the newer cities of the southwest, population growth and anti-tax zealotry puts pressure on the newer infrastructure that was not built to handle the loads they are confronted with.

We need to figure out some way of insulating the capital and maintenance budget for infrastructure from the misplaced priorities of our political class. In Washington, D.C., the wonderful and once state-of-the-art metro mass transit system recently had to shut down for a day to ensure that it was safe to operate. Faced with the need to obtain funding from many jurisdictions in two states and the District of Columbia, this once beautiful system is nearing collapse.

But as important as mass transit is to a modern city, water is actually more important. Unsafe drinking water can make you sick and if children ingest lead, it can cause brain damage. Water is a biological necessity and since the primary function of government is to ensure the security and well-being of the population, protecting a jurisdiction’s water supply can be as important as police and fire services. In New York City’s case, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office and asked for an assessment of the risks and threats that the city might face, he learned that a collapse in the water supply system was at or near the top of the list.

We take our water supply for granted. We turn on the faucet and clean water flows out. In parts of the developing world people walk with buckets for miles to find water and bring it back to their home. The technology of water supply has advanced dramatically in recent decades. We can filter almost any water and make it safe to use. A poor water supply is a function of underinvestment in infrastructure which must be built when the land use development process degrades traditional sources of water. At one time your home might have been in a place where you could dig a well and obtain clean water. As land development occurs that clean source can become polluted.

In New York City, we once had a reservoir on 42nd Street at the site of the present New York Public Library. As groundwater got polluted and as real estate values soared, the city’s leaders realized that they needed to go many miles north of the city to store water and then spend the money to pipe it back. There is always the temptation to do what Flint, Michigan did and look for a cheaper source of water, but you get what you pay for. As the planet becomes more crowded and as the global trend toward urbanization continues, investment in water treatment and supply needs to grow. For the moment, an awareness of this need seems to have political currency in the United States. We saw that last week when New York’s mayor restored capital funds needed to build the city’s third water tunnel.

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