Below is an excerpt from part two of The Ripple Effect

Chapter 11: Water Scarcity


And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.
—John Steinbeck, East of Eden, 1952



On a cold, bright aternoon in March 2007, I walked across a busy construction site on a windy corner of Eleventh Avenue, on the far west side of midtown Manhattan, stepped aboard an orange steel elevator cage, and dropped into an enormous hole in the ground. The hole, called Shat 26B, was the main portal to a new subterranean labyrinth, City Water Tun- nel No. 3. Pressed around me were half a dozen men dressed, as I was, in yellow slickers, muddy rubber boots, and orange hard hats. “The tun- nel can be dangerous,” said Ted Dowey, the project’s executive construc- tion manager. “It can flood. Water pressure can hemorrhage a pipe. And there’s groundwater seepage through the rock—about two hundred thou- sand gallons a minute along the nine-mile tunnel. If you don’t pump it out every day, the water’ll shut it down.”
Dowey slammed the gate shut. “Okay!” he said. The construction eleva- tor shuddered disconcertingly, and with a grinding noise began to drop. We passed through a couple of inches of asphalt, perhaps a foot of con- crete, several feet of brown dirt, then continued down through sixty stories of dark gray granite called Manhattan schist, 450-million-year-old meta- morphic rock that is flecked with mica and prized for its ability to support one of the densest clusters of skyscrapers in the world. At two hundred feet down, the hole at the surface through which we could see blue sky was reduced to the size of a quarter, and the light was growing murky. By three hundred feet down, we were completely enveloped in a warm, humid blackness. By five hundred feet, I heard the sound of dripping water. Ater a long four-minute ride, Dowey said, “Almost there!” A single dim light- bulb rose up from below, like some kind of phosphorescent deep-sea fish, then a bell rang, and the cage bounced to a stop. Dowey opened the gate, and we filed out into a world of smudged light, ankle-deep water, and sot gray mud. We were roughly 580 feet underground, inside New York City’s most urgent water supply project.
At this depth, I sensed the weight and density of the city’s bedrock. My eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom, and I saw muddied yellow drill rigs mounted on Caterpillar tracks. The rigs were armed with twin hydrau- lic bits and stood next to a long, mud-spattered conveyor belt. Giant air ducts and thick, looping power lines carrying 13,200 volts of electricity to power the tunnel-boring machine snaked along the wall beneath a line of dim bulbs. In either direction, the massive tube seemed to recede to infinity.
Dowey, a tall, lean man with a dark goatee, pointed straight ahead, along the tunnel. “That way is north,” he shouted over the roaring fans that supplied fresh air. “From here, the tunnel runs straight uptown to Sixty- Eighth Street, with no stop signs.” Then he turned downtown. “Let’s go this way and see if we can find some sandhogs.” Sandhogs is the nickname for the tunneling specialists who have excavated New York’s subways, sew- ers, and skyscraper foundations since the mid-1870s, when they dug out the caissons for the Brooklyn Bridge.
Manhattan is a relatively dry island in a relatively wet region. Viewed through the lens of water supply, New York City has more in common with dry Western cities such as Denver, Phoenix, and Las Vegas than it does with most places in the East. Just like those cities, New York has responded to its water demands by building a gigantic siphon to bring water into the city from rural sources far away.
Tunnel No. 3 is a project of the New York City Department of Environ- mental Protection (DEP), which comprises the largest and most complex municipal water system in the country—known to many engineers as “the eighth wonder of the world.” The DEP’s exquisitely engineered network of dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, and tunnels draws from a watershed stretch- ing across 1,972 square miles—an area about the size of Delaware—and contains 580 billion gallons of water. The distribution system supplies roughly 1.3 billion gallons of freshwater to 8 million city dwellers and 1 million suburbanites every day. The DEP system encompasses sixty-five hundred miles of water mains and sixty-six hundred miles of wastewater pipes; 95 percent of the water it carries flows dozens of miles into the city by gravity alone. Dropping from aqueducts as high as fourteen hundred feet above sea level down to pipes a thousand feet below sea level, the water builds up so much pressure that when it reaches Manhattan’s water mains, where it flows at roughly ninety-five pounds per square inch, it will rise to the sixth floor of most buildings unaided by pumps. Pressure in the system is so great that in some parts of the city it must be lowered mechanically by regulator valves.
New York City’s water system was well designed and robustly built but has grown leaky and decrepit with age. Parts of the system are 140 years old and require significant upgrades. The city’s drinking supply has had a higher profile under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but much of the sys- tem suffers from years of underinvestment and deferred maintenance, and the DEP faces a growing list of problems: infirm dams and seeping water tunnels, sewage overflows and industrial water pollution, pressure from development and gas drilling in the watershed, tension between rural communities and the city over control of water, competition with neigh- boring states for future drinking supplies, and worries about the impact of climate change on water quality and quantity.
Aging infrastructure is a growing problem nationwide, but the decline has occurred largely out of sight, both literally and figuratively. The Amer- ican Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the nation’s oldest engineering society, has reported that much of the nation’s hydro-infrastructure is on the verge of failure. In its 2009 Report Card, ASCE gave the nation’s infrastructure a D, or “Poor,” grade, and waterworks earned some of the worst grades of all: the nation’s dams were given a D, while drinking water, wastewater treatment plants, inland waterways, and levees all received grades of D-minus, meaning they are dangerously compromised.
In New York, DEP engineers are especially concerned about the state of the city’s two main water arteries—City Water Tunnels No. 1 and No. 2.

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