With the simple twist of a valve, Mayor Bloomberg last month symbolically opened New York City’s Third Water Tunnel, setting off a cascade of water into City’s Hall’s Croton Fountain. If only it had been so easy in the making. Indeed, the mayoral ceremony paid tribute to one of the largest, most complex infrastructure projects in the nation’s history.
A few facts put the magnitude of the accomplishment in perspective. Completing the Tunnel required cutting a 24-foot diameter corridor through 63 miles of some of the world’s hardest rock – double the length of the UK-France Chunnel. Workers removed over 82 million cubic feet of bedrock from hundreds of feet below one of the world’s largest, most active urban areas – enough stone to build the Empire State Building and Yankee Stadium.
The tunnel project has required tremendous staying power on the part of the City – spanning 43 years and eleven mayoral terms dating back to John Lindsay. City taxpayers have committed over $6 billion to the project, nearly half of that amount coming during Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure. And, especially in its earlier years, the project was very dangerous for the courageous tunnel diggers known as Sandhogs, claiming 24 lives.
The mayor’s decision to activate the tunnel in front of Croton Fountain was fitting. The fountain’s opening ceremony in 1842 heralded the arrival of the nation’s first public water fountain and safe drinking water for the city inhabitants, who had been vulnerable to cholera and devastating fires.
Creating the city’s water infrastructure – an interconnected, gravity-fed system of 19 upstate reservoirs and thousands of miles of mains – was a staggering achievement that required decades of commitment and sacrifice by city residents and their upstate neighbors. The investment paid off: the water system has safeguarded the health and security of generations of New Yorkers and enabled the City to grow and prosper.
The Third Water Tunnel adds an essential layer of protection. For nearly 100 years, two tunnels have delivered water to the city’s five boroughs without fail, over a billion gallons a day in recent decades. In 1970, City leaders had the foresight to realize that a failure of either Tunnel 1 or Tunnel 2 would cause great hardship, if not catastrophe.
The lessons of New York City’s water supply system are instructive as the city addresses the equally profound challenge of adapting to climate change. Scientists have hesitated to ascribe the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy directly to climate change. Our experiences in New York and the unfolding tragedy in the Philippines add to the already abundant supply of evidence that global sea levels are rising and storm intensity is increasing, making New York City and coastal communities in the region vulnerable to further catastrophe.
In the aftermath of Sandy, the Bloomberg administration convened experts from inside and outside of government to develop a comprehensive plan for reducing the City’s vulnerability to rising sea levels and adapting to climate change. The resulting 400-page document, dedicated to the 43 New Yorkers who lost their lives in the storm, includes recommendations that will require billions of dollars in new investments to protect critical infrastructure and coastal communities. While costly, these investments will enable the City to avoid even greater financial and human hardship later.
Mayor-Elect De Blasio will soon take over the reins at City Hall. In facing the significant financial and political challenges of sustaining a long-term commitment to climate change mitigation and adaptation the next administration could do worse than to seek inspiration and resolve from the example provided by their predecessors in the development of the Third Water Tunnel, which now safeguards the integrity of New York City’s world-class water supply system.