Will New York Lose Most of Its Water Due to Leaky Pipes?

New York City’s water system is in “critical condition,” with leaks, erosion, contamination and incompetence threatening drinking water quality and

New York City’s water system is in “critical condition,”

with leaks, erosion, contamination and incompetence threatening drinking water

quality and delivery, a report by an environmental group claims.

The report by Riverkeeper Inc., released on July 25, says

the city’s water system may have been contaminated by mercury and other toxins,

and that an antique aqueduct could soon collapse, depriving the city of as much

as 80 percent of its water supply. It levels particularly harsh criticism at

the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, where, it claims,

“competent, conscientious workers are routinely sidelined in favor of loyal

favorites, without regard to their abilities.”

Several high-level officials have been asked to resign in

the wake of an F.B.I. investigation into an alleged cover-up of mercury leaks,

the report claims. One official, it alleges, left after the F.B.I. caught him

trashing files pertaining to the leaks in a Dumpster outside a D.E.P. field

office. Officials have “implicitly discouraged” employees from cooperating with

the investigation, the report says.

In scathing language, the report calls out several other

D.E.P. employees by name, accusing them of incompetence.

Geoffrey Ryan, a D.E.P. spokesman, dismissed the report as

“fraught with misstatements of fact.”

“It’s a rehash of some of Riverkeeper’s pet themes,” Mr.

Ryan said. “And, typically, it’s characterized by misinformation, inaccuracies,

innuendo, allegations from unidentified sources, and assaults on the character,

competence and performance of dedicated D.E.P. employees.”

Mr. Ryan said that Riverkeeper’s chief prosecuting attorney,

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., had sent the agency a two-page letter containing some of

the most serious allegations in the report, but that the agency had not

responded because of the personal nature of the attacks. In a May 2 letter, the

D.E.P.’s special counsel, Charles G. Sturcken, warned Mr. Kennedy against

publishing the report, writing that the group “does so at its own risk.”

Mr. Kennedy, who is serving a 30-day prison sentence in

Vieques, Puerto Rico, for his role in protesting the U.S. Navy bombing

exercises there, was not available for comment.

Marc Yaggi, a Riverkeeper attorney, acknowledged that many

of the problems listed in the report have been publicly disclosed before, but

said that’s precisely the point.

“I think things have generally remained status quo” since

City Hall signed an agreement intended to protect the New York City watershed

four years ago, Mr. Yaggi said. “It seems like a complete case of covering up

the problems, hoping to avert crisis until there’s a new administration.”

In their defense, D.E.P. officials pointed to a July 23

decision by the United States Environmental Protection Agency that allows the

city to put on hold-for now-plans to build a plant to filter contaminants out

of the water flowing from the Catskill-Delaware watershed. The favorable

decision, they said, proves the D.E.P. has made great strides in keeping New

York City’s water-long considered some of the nation’s tastiest-clean and safe.

Instead, the city will go ahead with a $150 million plan to

build a facility that treats water with ultraviolet light, Mr. Ryan said.

That’s just one of several projects under way, he added, including a $600

million program to repair many of the very infrastructural problems Riverkeeper

complains about in its report.

Additionally, scientists from the Stroud Water Research

Center in Pennsylvania have been conducting tests since last year throughout

the watershed, as part of a three-year, $3.6 million contract to monitor and

trace sources of contamination in the city’s water. The results of the first

year of that study have been turned in to the state Department of Environmental

Conservation, but have not been released.

Riverkeeper says the cheerful progress reports mask a dreary

long-term picture. The gurgling streams that run unnoticed beneath upstate New

Yorkers’ feet are in danger because of poor maintenance and bad management at

the D.E.P., the group says.

“Four decades ago, the City of New York was known as the

Mecca of basic civil engineering and water delivery, and the city water supply

was regarded among American civilization’s proudest engineering achievements,”

the report reads. “The brilliant engineers of DEP’s halcyon days have departed

and the city is left with an ossified, worm-eaten engineering staff, which

presides over the gradual deterioration of the system.”

The report is the third in a series of five that Riverkeeper

plans to prepare assessing the 1997 watershed agreement, which allows the city

to regulate development in the upstate municipalities from which its water

supply flows. Mr. Kennedy was one of the designers of the plan and an author of

the reports.

Since the agreement was signed, Mr. Kennedy has been

unsparing in his criticism of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s enforcement of it,

alleging that the Mayor has been too accommodating to builders who want to

develop the watershed lands. Development is a threat to the city’s water

because the inevitable byproducts of human habitation can contaminate drinking

water at its source.

When the last report was released, in November 1999, Mr.

Kennedy accused Mr. Giuliani of allowing development in an attempt to “court

political favor” with upstate Republicans as he prepared to run for the United

States Senate. That drew a strong rebuke from Mr. Giuliani’s aides, who said

Mr. Kennedy’s report was colored by political considerations. Mr. Kennedy, a

Democrat, actively supported Mr. Giuliani’s then-opponent, Hillary Rodham


The latest report is drier stuff. It focuses primarily on

problems with the 6,000-mile network of reservoirs, pipes and underground

aqueducts, much of which dates back 50 years or more, and the alleged failures

of the D.E.P. to properly monitor and maintain the system.

Riverkeeper recommends that the city immediately fix several

damaged or deteriorating aqueducts using a long-promised (but never-delivered)

submarine to explore leaks, and that it begin planning to build a third tunnel

to pipe water from the Hudson River to the city to back up the present system-a

project that would cost untold billions. The report further calls on the city

to “stop concealing critical information from elected officials and the


“The city’s spent millions and millions of dollars to try

and protect the quality of the water supply, but not a dime on infrastructure,”

Mr. Yaggi said.

Chief among Riverkeeper’s concerns, Mr. Yaggi said, were

leaks in the Delaware Aqueduct, which runs for 83.8 miles from the Rondout

Reservoir in Ulster County to the Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers. Constructed

between 1937 and 1945, it is the longest continuous tunnel in the world. It is

also leaking like crazy-somewhere between 10 million and 38 million gallons a

day, according to official estimates from the D.E.P. (New York consumes about

1.2 billion gallons of water a day.) Riverkeeper says that some D.E.P.

engineers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, estimate that the leak could

be much larger-perhaps as much as 100 million gallons a day.

“According to DEP engineers, the worst-case scenario, a

catastrophic aqueduct collapse, is a real possibility,” the report says. If

that happened, the city would be cut off from 80 percent of its water supply,

and might run out of water in as little as 80 days, Riverkeeper estimates. (Mr.

Ryan disputed both figures.)

While acknowledging the leak, the D.E.P. has sought to

stifle such doomsaying. “There is nothing to indicate that we have an emergency

situation,” D.E.P. Commissioner Joel A. Miele Sr. said at a December City

Council hearing. “The sky is not falling.”

Riverkeeper alleges that the city has dragged its feet in

buying a specially adapted $2 million submarine from the Woods Hole

Oceanographic Institute to explore the leaks, and that it has otherwise

conducted “an indefensibly minimalist response” to the problem. Mr. Ryan said

the sub was now under construction in Woods Hole.

Even worse, plugging the holes may now be impossible,

Riverkeeper says. According to the report, some D.E.P. engineers “fret that

this section of the aqueduct may now be held together only by the internal

pressure of the water“-meaning that it could collapse if drained for repairs.

But Mr. Ryan said the D.E.P. recently drained the tunnel without incident.

The aqueduct isn’t the only problem. According to the

report, the Croton Falls Dam is cracked and could fail, and a lack of security

allows cars, trucks and all-terrain vehicles to drive over the Catskill

Aqueduct, which is vulnerable to collapse. Mr. Ryan said the Croton Falls Dam

is one of several slated for repairs under the D.E.P.’s $600 million repair


The Riverkeeper report places much of the blame for the

infrastructural problems at the feet of the D.E.P. engineers, who operate with

broad autonomy in overseeing the system within their designated regions. Many,

it claims, “are counting their days to retirement, hoping they make it before

the dike bursts.” The engineers are often the only ones who know how the system

really works, the report says, adding that “there are no manuals showing the

operation of the system.”

While some administrators are lauded, others are singled out

by name for abuse. One top engineer is the son of a golf partner of former

Deputy Commissioner William Stasiuk. Another is called “the most dangerous

person in the entire system” by an anonymous informant.

“What difference does it make who Stasiuk played golf with?”

asked Mr. Ryan.

The most serious allegations surround Carl Picha, the

agency’s East of Hudson district engineer until he resigned in January.

“According to several sources,” the report says, “during the summer of 1999,

Picha was caught by the FBI sneaking out of the DEP’s Katonah office at night

to dump files and reports into a Dumpster.”

Some of those files, Riverkeeper alleges, had to do with the

criminal investigation into allegations of a cover-up of mercury contamination

in the city’s water supply.

Mr. Picha could not be reached for comment about the

allegations. “Carl Picha was not fired. He retired after 35, 36 years of

service,” Mr. Ryan said. Asked about the allegations regarding the trashed

files, Mr. Ryan repeatedly replied: “I can’t talk about the F.B.I.


Riverkeeper says the mercury contamination has been going on

for years. According to the report, outdated gauges, called manometers, are

used to measure the flow of water through the system. “A single manometer

contains enough mercury to contaminate the city’s entire water system,” the

report alleges. The gauges frequently break, and there have been numerous

reports of mercury leaks from them into the water system.

Mr. Ryan said there has been “zero” mercury contamination of

the system.

Other pieces of equipment used in the system give off

smaller amounts of other dangerous contaminants, including lead, the report


Riverkeeper claims the D.E.P. tried to cover up evidence of

serious contamination. In June 1999, the F.B.I. searched the agency’s offices,

seizing documents. A grand jury is investigating, but no arrests have ever been

made. Riverkeeper has obtained a copy of a June 2000 D.E.P. memo advising

employees that they have “no obligation” to cooperate with investigators.

“To my knowledge, all employees have indeed been

cooperative,” Mr. Ryan said. Will New York Lose Most of Its Water Due to Leaky Pipes?