Mayor’s Big Dig: Money Drains Out, Water Flows In

At a time of budget cuts and work-force reductions, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has committed billions of dollars to an enormous new capital project that rivals, in scope and complexity, the great public works of Robert Moses, the legendary builder of parks, highways and beaches.

The Observer has learned that the Bloomberg administration has decided to build a new $2.5 billion, 16-mile-long underground aqueduct from the upstate reservoir system to the city. The Mayor made the decision, which has not been publicly announced, several weeks ago, and Christopher Ward, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, is expected to reveal key details at a City Council hearing on March 6. The new aqueduct is to be named the Kensico Aqueduct.

“We’ve committed the money for this project,” Mr. Ward told The Observer . “It’s going to happen.”

As befits its name, the new aqueduct will originate in the upstate Kensico Reservoir, travel through Westchester County at a depth of around 700 feet, and finish at an underground valve chamber in the North Bronx that is the gateway to the entire city system. It will take 10 years to build, and design and engineering contracts are expected to be awarded within the next few months.

The Kensico Aqueduct is an entirely separate initiative from the Third Water Tunnel, a decades-old project that is being carved out of bedrock hundreds of feet beneath the city. The tunnel is confined to the five boroughs, whereas the aqueduct will transport water from upstate. There are signs, though, that the Third Water Tunnel has awakened in Mr. Bloomberg an interest in great public-works projects: Just before the end of the year, the Mayor made an unpublicized, impromptu visit to the tunnel, donning a hard hat and taking a construction elevator hundreds of feet into the bowels of Manhattan to drop in on the sandhogs, the tunnel workers who burrow through bedrock. Mr. Bloomberg came away awed by what he had seen.

The decision to build the new aqueduct comes as the city’s water-supply system is nearing its 100th anniversary. At present, the 1.3 billion gallons of water that the city consumes each day are transported from upstate in three majestic but aging aqueducts–the New Croton, Catskill and Delaware aqueducts, all of which are between 60 and 100 years old and are plagued by leaks or valve failures. It’s impossible to undertake extensive repairs to the aqueducts, however, because the city needs them to keep pumping at all times. Construction of the new aqueduct will make such repairs possible without major service interruptions.

“We’re witnessing the snap, crackle and pop of an aging system,” Mr. Ward said. “While there are no imminent calamities, it’s critical that we launch the Kensico Aqueduct now, so we can care for the system’s other aqueducts. It will take at least a decade to build the new one, and we can’t defer those repairs forever.”

The decision is a bold step for Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Ward. It will require a huge public expenditure amid the worst fiscal crisis in a generation. What’s more, Mr. Bloomberg is committing the money to a project that has been regarded as something less than a priority by a string of previous Mayors. The proposal for a new aqueduct was first floated in the 1950′s, and since then it has been all but forgotten, filed away by successive administrations in that most useful of bureaucratic categories, “needs further study.”

But now Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Ward have taken the unexpected step of committing billions of dollars to a project that won’t see its ribbon-cutting until well after the Mayor has left City Hall. And they’re fully aware that they may pay a short-term political price for their efforts to secure the long-term health of the water system. Because funding for D.E.P. capital projects comes from water and sewer fees and not from general tax revenues, the new project is all but certain to cause a long-term rise in those fees. And that very likely will anger homeowners who are already furious about recent hikes in property taxes.

“While water and sewer rates will rise, we will do all that we can to keep them as low as possible,” Mr. Ward said. “But if we don’t build now, what will we have left New Yorkers with 50 years from now?”

A Huge Task

To grasp the magnitude of the task at hand, consider that the construction of the city’s three current aqueducts were milestones in the hidden but spectacular history of New York’s underground infrastructure. The birth of the modern water-supply system took place in 1905 with the completion of the New Croton Aqueduct, a turn-of-the-century engineering marvel of iron and brick that today continues to transport water from a patchwork of lakes and reservoirs in Westchester. A decade later, the city took a dramatic step forward when it opened the Catskill Aqueduct in 1915, which reached much farther north to tap the Catskills for the first time. The Delaware Aqueduct expanded the system’s reach deep into the Western Catskills when it opened in 1944.

These aqueducts have been carrying torrents of water to the city continuously since their collective inception, so it’s not surprising that they’re showing scattered signs of wear and tear. The Delaware Aqueduct has a decades-old leak some 700 feet beneath Roseton, N.Y., a tiny rural town. Both the Catskills and New Croton aqueducts have been plagued by all manner of stresses and strains, such as minor leaks and oil intrusions-not harbingers of chaos, perhaps, but nonetheless in need of care.

The problem for Mr. Ward and the other men and women who maintain the city’s water-supply system is that it’s impossible to undertake extensive repairs to the existing aqueducts without shutting them down. And that’s simply not an option, because closing even one aqueduct would leave millions of New Yorkers without water.

Then there’s the remote possibility of terrorism. If somehow one of the aqueducts were to be ruptured-a scenario which city officials believe is virtually impossible-half the city could be left temporarily without water until the aqueduct was repaired. A new aqueduct would nullify that threat.

The new aqueduct is part of a 10-year, $16 billion capital plan designed to protect the city’s water supply for decades to come. The plan, which was made available to The Observer , also includes funding for the extensive study of a new technique that may help the city in times of future drought.

The technique, which has never been tried in New York, is extraordinary: It entails injecting hundreds of millions of gallons of fresh water into an underground aquifer on the Queens–Long Island border. If the water is injected by huge pumps, engineers believe, it will sit undisturbed inside an enormous underground bubble for an undetermined amount of time. In times of aquatic plenty, the city would thus be able to store fresh water in the aquifer, to be pumped out again during water shortages. City engineers are planning to begin testing the idea this summer, Mr. Ward said, and if it flies, it will be put to use in approximately a decade.

The engineering challenge of building the Kensico Aqueduct is no less daunting. On March 4, a crew of D.E.P. engineers met to map out what lies ahead. The first step is to work out an exact route. That entails doing an extensive study of the geology of the possible routes to search out-and avoid-faults, underground rivers and other geological flaws that could complicate the tunneling process.

The next step will be to fix on a designer who will work out logistics, such as hooking up the aqueduct to the Kensico Reservoir and finding points of entry for machinery. The actual tunneling will be done by a huge tunnel-boring machine known as “the Mole,” a formidable, 70-foot-long contraption with spinning blades that chip away at the rock. The Mole is connected to a conveyor belt that carries the rubble back to the entry point, where it is raised to the surface and carried away. This technique is a significant advance on earlier techniques, such as the dynamite blasting that was used on the Delaware Aqueduct and the “cut-and-cover” method used to excavate the Catskill Aqueduct.

Once the aqueduct is complete, it is lined with thick walls of concrete. When finished, the aqueduct will be about 20 feet in diameter. At present, city engineers are grappling with a key issue: trying to determine just how much water the aqueduct should be designed to carry. It may be built on such a grand scale that it’ll be able to carry the city’s entire daily water supply.