By Elias Rodriguez
New York City’s Water Tunnel No. 3 has yet to supply one drop of drinking water to the population, nevertheless it is already a world renowned marvel of engineering and water infrastructure savvy. The project is MASSIVE. The water tunnel has already been featured documentaries, magazine spreads and even had a starring role in a Bruce Willis feature film. Guess which one?
As I descended into the darkness to take a tour of the cacophonous capital construction project, I marveled at the foresight it took on the part of elected officials to say YES to a gargantuan investment with little short-term gain, but with a payoff that will yield safe, clean drinking water for generations of thirsty New York residents and visitors. Through six mayors and $6 billion the public works project inexorably presses on.
Clickety, Clank, Clickety, Clank, went the tiny hoist that took us down to the work area hundreds of feet below. In the darkness, I made a quick mental inventory of my life insurance policy. Sweating under a hard hat, my first impression was how damp and muddy things were. Maybe as a Lord of the Rings fan I was expecting Persian rugs and tea? We met tunnel workers or sand hogs as they are proudly known, avoided getting run over by work trains and learned about metamorphic rock. One caveat is that down under one cannot escape the endless supply of tunnel humor. When is a boring adventure not boring? Did you hear the one about schist rock? My spelunking sojourn was exciting, educational and eerie. The City has its own slideshow here.
You may ask, why build it? All drinking water taken from surface water sources must, under the Safe Drinking Water Act, be filtered to remove microbial contaminants. EPA can grant a waiver from this requirement if the water supplier can demonstrate that they have an effective watershed control program and that their water meets strict quality standards. New York City is one of a handful of major cities (Boston, Los Angeles and Seattle are a few others) in the nation that is granted a waiver, aptly named a filtration avoidance determination. Thanks to EPA’s partnership with NYC, the people get what is arguably some of the best tasting tap water on the planet and the City gets to save billions it would otherwise need to invest to filter the 1.4 billion gallons a day of water it consumes.
A few hours later, we safely returned from the bowels of bedrock. As I squinted into the daylight again, my appreciation for New York’s crisp, clean H20 was renewed. As I wrote at the start of this blog, I am not a hobbit, but it’s great to know that the City is working on a new tunnel to supply drinking water or, in a pinch, quench the fires of Mordor.