City Water Tunnels Tip Toward Disaster

New York City residents use about 1.3 billion gallons of water a day, and most of us have no idea that it’s only dumb luck that keeps the water flowing into our homes. In fact, the city’s water system is balanced on the brink of disaster: If either of the two water tunnels which currently carry water from upstate reservoirs were to collapse or have a serious blockage, millions of New Yorkers would be without running water for a year or more. How are those tunnels holding up? No one really knows. That’s because the tunnels, which date to the early 1900’s, have never been fully inspected or repaired, because to do so would require shutting one of them down, causing serious water shortages. What is known about tunnels Nos. 1 and 2 is that they’re leaking, and that they’re carrying 60 percent more water than they were designed to handle.

The solution is the city’s most expensive capital project ever: the $6 billion, 60-mile- long water tunnel No. 3. The only problem is, the tunnel isn’t done yet. And while a project of this scale could be expected to take a few years, it’s worth noting that when work was begun on tunnel No. 3, John Lindsay was Mayor. Twenty-three workers have lost their lives in the tunnel. At the current funding and pace, it won’t be completed until 2020. Which means 15 more years of hoping that tunnels Nos. 1 and 2 will defy common sense and remain intact. (If you live in Manhattan, say a special prayer for tunnel No. 1: It brings in 90 percent of the borough’s water. It began operation the same year the U.S. entered World War I.) A study commissioned by the city concluded: “One can only hope and pray that no major conflagrations will occur in the meantime and that city tunnels 1 and 2 will continue to function despite their age and no opportunity for maintenance.” That report was issued over 30 years ago.

The failure of the city, state and federal government to spend whatever it takes to get tunnel No. 3 operating as soon as possible is shocking. The sand hogs who are digging the tunnel through the bedrock are working around-the-clock shifts; even so, they can only advance about 100 feet on a good day. The Bush administration, along with Albany and City Hall, share a responsibility to devote billions of dollars in equipment and manpower to this urgent task. Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton should use their visibility and influence to move tunnel No. 3 to the forefront of the agenda. A water crisis in New York City would have a serious economic impact on the national economy, comparable to-and possibly worse than-Sept. 11. Experts estimate that it would take at least a year to dig down and repair a collapse in one of the tunnels. That would be a year in which millions of New Yorkers would have no running water, turning America’s foremost city-the country’s financial capital-into a disaster zone. The chaos and cost of bringing a billion gallons of water a day into New York on trucks would be staggering.

This is a national crisis in the making, and it demands the immediate, full attention of city, state and federal officials.

The Greatest Lawn

One of New York’s greatest success stories is the restoration of Central Park over the past two decades. A dangerous eyesore in the 1970’s, the park has reclaimed its former glory, fulfilling Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of a true oasis for New Yorkers, thanks to the efforts of the city along with the private, nonprofit Central Park Conservancy, which now provides more than 85 percent of the annual $20 million operating budget. One of the most remarkable transformations involves the Great Lawn. Where it was once a dusty, negligible spot best avoided, its 13 acres are now carpeted with lush Kentucky bluegrass, thanks to an $18.2 million restoration in 1997.

In order to maintain the Great Lawn’s pristine condition, the Parks Department recently proposed that events drawing more than 50,000 people should be strictly prohibited, and those in the neighborhood of 50,000 limited to only six per year, with four of those slots going to free concerts by the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. The ruling has caused an outcry among those who wish to hold massive political rallies or large-scale concerts, which have drawn as many as 500,000 people in the past.

The city’s decision is right on target. Large events-particularly rock concerts and political rallies, where people are standing and shuffling instead of sitting, as they do at classical-music concerts-do grave harm to the grass. It can take two months to repair the damage, rendering the lawn unusable for an entire summer. And after a rock concert that drew 80,000 people in 2003, four of the lawn’s softball fields were out of commission for the season.

To hand over the lawn to outside political groups and rock promoters would be a disservice to New Yorkers-who are, after all, the park’s primary users-and the tourists who flock here. More than 250,000 people stroll through Central Park on a summer weekend, enjoying its 26,000 trees, 150 acres of lakes and streams, and 58 miles of meandering pedestrian paths. To allow the lawn to be trampled into disrepair would be a crime. Meanwhile, the city can still accommodate large crowds as needed: The Reverend Billy Graham is planning a major three-day rally in Flushing Meadows Park.

Central Park may be the greatest example of what municipal government can do to improve the quality of urban life. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe deserve credit for protecting the Great Lawn for the benefit of all New Yorkers.

Battle of the Badges

The conflict between the NYPD and the FDNY over jurisdiction in emergency situations has a long and sordid history. It dates back to the days when the city’s volunteer firefighters battled each other for the honor and privilege of putting out a raging blaze. More recently, police officers and firefighters from elite rescue and emergency units have had physical confrontations over command and control of accident sites.

These turf battles may seem colorful when viewed from afar, but as we learned on Sept. 11, coordination between these two proud institutions is vital in the age of international terrorism. That’s why Mayor Bloomberg recently clarified the roles which the police and firefighters will be expected to play in emergencies like a biochemical terrorist attack. According to the plan, the police will be in charge of such incidents.

The Fire Department is not pleased. The chief of department, Peter Hayden, said the new response plan is no better than the one that was in place on Sept. 11. The chief’s criticisms are not easily dismissed: He was in command at the north tower on Sept. 11, and saw firsthand the chaos and faulty coordination that hampered the rescue efforts and doomed so many of his brave colleagues. True, Chief Hayden’s department has long been in charge of incidents involving hazardous materials and has special units for just such disasters. There’s no question that the Fire Department has the expertise required.

The questions are of command and coordination, and the Mayor has decided, properly, that the Police Department will be in charge of the incident site. The Fire Department has unrivaled skill in responding to a HAZMAT disaster. But the Police Department is best outfitted for the assignment of coordinating responses, investigating the scene, securing its perimeter and controlling traffic and crowds.

It goes without saying that every New Yorker hopes that the Mayor’s new emergency-management plan will never have reason to be put into effect. And Chief Hayden’s unhappiness must be addressed. His years of experience and his own personal heroism command attention.

In the end, however, the Mayor’s instincts are correct. What’s more, the city must move quickly to make sure that everybody understands the new rules. As we learned on Sept. 11, faulty coordination and uncertain lines of command can-and will-cost lives.