Drought or Not, We Won’t Drink From the River

When Christopher Ward takes office as the new commissioner of the

city Department of Environmental Protection on April 8, one of his first acts

will be to suspend the city’s efforts to tap the Hudson River to relieve the

city’s water shortage. The idea of siphoning water from the Hudson was floated,

so to speak, byMayorMichael Bloomberg two months ago-one of several last-resort

solutions to the city’s water crisis. The shortage is expected to be so severe

that Mr. Bloomberg formally declared a Stage 1 drought emergency on March

26-abruptly turning Mr. Ward’s normally low-profile post into a high-visibility

position with huge implications for the city’s immediate future.

Mr. Ward decided to scrap the proposal to tap into the

Hudson-which contributed some 100 million gallons a day through a pumping

station near Poughkeepsie until 1985-after listening to environmentalists

predict a range of calamities, not least of them an invasion by a new Hudson

River species known as zebra mussels. If introduced into the city water system,

it turns out, this lusty species of shellfish could multiply at an astonishing

rate and block sinks and toilets from Woodlawn to Brighton Beach.

“We have suspended our efforts to pump the Hudson, because it

won’t bring in enough water and it will cause more problems than it will

solve,” Mr. Ward told The Observer ,

in his first extensive interview since being appointed to the post. “The

pumping of the Hudson has no immediate or midterm value to the water supply of

the city.” Mr. Ward didn’t rule out use of the Hudson in a dire emergency in

the future-if, say, reservoirs were on the verge of drying up. But that almost

certainly won’t happen.

Mr. Ward’s decision is one of several early signals that the

Bloomberg administration intends to establish a good relationship with the

city’s environmental community, which is regrouping after an eight-year war

with former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Indeed, it’s a safe bet that the specter of

zebra mussels in the city’s sewers wouldn’t have been all that alarming to Mr.

Ward’s predecessor, Joel Miele, a confrontational Queens Republican who packed

a pistol in an ankle holster. Environmentalists battled Mr. Miele throughout

the Giuliani years, suing his department numerous times and charging that he

failed to protect the city’s upstate watershed. Relations deteriorated so badly

that Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper Inc.,

took to comparing Mr. Miele to Boss Tweed.

Under Mr. Ward-a burly, gregarious, wonkish man who lights up

when discussing the virtues of light rail and other big capital projects-things

are likely to be different. Several months ago, when the Mayor was considering

Mr. Ward for the D.E.P. post, two of Mr. Bloomberg’s top aides, Marc Shaw and

William Cunningham, quietly reached out to Mr. Kennedy to solicit the

environmental community’s opinion of Mr. Ward. After canvassing his fellow

environmentalists, Mr. Kennedy got back to them with an answer: Mr. Ward was

well-liked because, as chief planner for the Port Authority of New York and New

Jersey for the past five years, he

had been sensitive to environmental concerns during the agency’s development of

its master plan, pushing for protections of the Hudson estuary. He also had

experience selling large capital projects to angry community groups: He made

the rounds in southeast Queens several years ago, persuading residents that the

light-rail project linking Jamaica to Kennedy Airport would be good for their

communities. Armed with those good reviews, Mr. Ward got the job.

Mr. Ward’s appointment led many environmentalists to speculate

that Mr. Bloomberg will be more environmentally friendly than his predecessor

was. Of course, Mr. Bloomberg has not pleased them on all fronts: He proposed

scrapping the city’s recycling program in a cost-cutting move and suggested

that the city may have to build new incineration plants to get rid of its

garbage. Environmentalists associate such moves with the bad old days of grimy,

smoggy New York City in the 1970’s. But Mr. Bloomberg has also cheered

environmentalists by taking the subway to work and proposing several measures

aimed at discouraging motorists from taking their cars into Manhattan’s central

business districts.

Now that the city has declared a drought emergency, Mr. Ward

will  become one of Mr. Bloomberg’s

highest-profile commissioners, and his performance will go a long way towards

setting the administration’s tone on the environment.

“Because of the drought, Chris Ward will be among the most

visible commissioners at City Hall,” said

Eric Goldstein, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Hopefully that visibility will translate into the authority he’ll need to ensurethattheBloomberg

administration is green on all the other issues facing

our city.”

The earliest indications are that Mr. Ward’s tenure will be

marked not just by a willingness to listen to the environmental community, but

also by his emphasis on capital spending to upgrade the city’s aging water

infrastructure.

“This city was built on large-scale infrastructure projects that

were put up generations ago,” Mr. Ward said, adding that he expected to launch

a $1.8 billion capital plan next year for a range of projects, including a

major upgrade of the sewer system. “D.E.P. is a huge, huge utility. It’s a

fabulous system that was created decades ago. It needs to be taken care of,

expanded and improved upon. There comes a time when you need to spend money to

make it better.”

Huge Challenges

In a city dealing with a budget crisis, a drought and lingering

fears of terrorist attacks, Mr. Ward faces a number of other huge challenges.

First among them is balancing the economic needs of upstate residents who live

in and near the city’s watershed with the mission of ensuring New Yorkers that

their water is safe from impurities as well as bioterrorism.

Mr. Ward said that fishermen would be allowed to troll upstate

reservoirs again. They had been banned amid heightened anxiety after Sept. 11.

But Mr. Ward said that he agreed with environmentalists, who have publicly

argued that the water system was far more vulnerable to poisons or explosives

at its intake points-the places where water enters the city system-than at the

reservoirs, which are too large to be poisoned by material carried in a small

fishing boat.

“In a large reservoir, whatever you’re putting in the water would

diffuse,” Mr. Ward said. Echoing the public comments of environmentalists, he

added: “Intake points are clearly the points of most concern. The worry is that

someone would introduce into an intake system some type of poison, where it

would go directly into the system and wouldn’t have a chance to dissipate

within a larger body.”

To combat such fears, Mr. Ward said, his agency would have a

representative on Mayor Bloomberg’s new bioterrorism task force, which includes

representatives of the Police and Fire departments. “After Sept. 11, issues of

bioterrorism are going to be very high on the agenda,” he said. “One of the

things that we’re really going to have to evaluate is the security of the

watershed system. We need to find a balanced approach for protecting it while

meeting the needs of people upstate.”

The second set of challenges is associated with the drought. On

March 26-one of this year’s few rainy days–Mr. Bloomberg announced that city

residents would be prohibited from washing vehicles, sidewalks, driveways and

streets, among other things. But it’s not easy to persuade New Yorkers to

conserve water. Just ask former Mayor Ed Koch. In an effort to limit

toilet-flushing during a drought of the early 1980’s, Mr. Koch famously

remarked: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down!”

Mr. Ward sought to make a similar point, although he didn’t

exactly match Mr. Koch’s deft use of imagery. “We need to take seasonal water

regulations and add another series of restrictions,” he said.

Making matters more complex, Mr. Ward candidly noted in the

interview that there was a strong possibility that the drought emergency could

be upgraded to a Stage 2 emergency in the coming weeks. This would mean

stricter regulations and enforcement on water use, including sending teams of

enforcement agents out to ticket violators.

Mr. Bloomberg is trying to remain optimistic about the city’s

water supply-in a private meeting with Mr. Ward recently at City Hall, the

Mayor joked that it was a good omen that it had rained four times since Mr.

Ward’s appointment-but officials remain wary.

“In all likelihood, I would think we’re talking about a potential

Stage 2 within a month,” Mr. Ward said. “If it rains a lot, as it can and it

has, we can avoid it; but if levels stay consistently low, we’ll need to go to

a Stage 2.”

All of which raises yet another problem for Mr. Ward, one that

goes to the heart of his new job’s challenge. On the one hand, he needs to

alert New Yorkers to the vulnerability of the water system, which is the city’s

largest capital asset. The trick is to do that without exacerbating fears about

the fragility of post–Sept. 11 New York.

“We need to let New Yorkers understand that water, which is the

lifeblood of the city, is also a finite and vulnerable resource,” Mr. Ward

said. “But we need to do it in a way that won’t undermine people’s long-term

confidence in New York.”