“Water main breaks have caused outages across my community and contamination from old pipes have left homes with rust colored water for days…The people of New York City deserve functioning infrastructure and real investments are the only way to get us there.”

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The scene of a sewer system blockage in Queens in 2019.

This past January, over 300 homes in Park Slope lost access to running water due to a water main break. We fielded dozens of calls from worried neighbors who had no idea when they would be able to turn the faucet back on again. My office worked quickly to get in touch with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) arrived with water and supplies, while DEP excavated the water main break. For nearly a week, while winter weather chilled our neighborhood, hundreds of community members were left in limbo.

Since my first weeks in office, there have been several urgent infrastructure issues in District 39. Water main breaks have caused outages across my community and contamination from old pipes have left homes with rust colored water for days. Each time, my office has sprung into action to coordinate with DEP, get supplies to our neighbors, and work quickly to solve this pressing issue. The people of New York City deserve functioning infrastructure and real investments are the only way to get us there.

The ongoing and deepening climate crisis has led to stronger storms and placed mounting pressure on our city’s aging infrastructure. Our over 100-year-old infrastructure has been pushed to the brink by extreme weather and overwhelmed our storm surge capacity, which was designed for storms of the past. Additionally, during the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, residents along the waterfront bore the brunt of the city’s sewage overflow as it filled up their basements and homes. As storms get worse and our pipes continue to rust, New York City must act to address these structural inequities before these crises become a daily occurrence.

To prepare our city for the future, our government must build resilient infrastructure to ensure our neighbors are safe and help our city adapt to this new normal. This starts with investing in better maintenance of our water pipes and dramatically expanding our storm surge capacity. Our office has been in touch with the DEP to secure urgent funding to increase storm surge capacity and upgrade our infrastructure.

Since the 1990’s, we’ve spent $1.7 billion on water infrastructure repairs and maintenance. This is funding that is simply used to maintain the status quo without making the necessary changes to protect against future storms and infrastructure failures. We need to at least double this investment over the same time period, utilizing city, state, and federal funding to ensure we’re not just repairing our infrastructure but upgrading it to protect our neighbors from the next storm. 

However, mounting red tape on capital funding means that these projects will take years to implement after the initial analysis. We know from our neighbors that we don’t have years to wait. While we wait on capital funding to provide DEP with the resources to upgrade our infrastructure, we can take immediate steps to make our communities more resilient.

We can legalize and regulate basement apartments to ensure that these dwellings are appropriately retrofitted to withstand future flooding. We can increase investments in emergency preparation and resources for those living in flood zones to ensure people who are most at risk are always ready for the next storm. We can also invest in ecologically sound flood mitigation techniques like rain gardens, permeable asphalt, and additional small-scale green infrastructure to limit the impact of future storms. These are immediate actions we can take while we await funding to make our city stronger and more resilient.

During the second week of September, our community experienced another sudden storm surge that left many neighbors with flooded basements. For many, this wasn’t the first time and the reality has set in for most that this won’t be the last. When our city’s infrastructure was built hundreds of years ago, climate change was not top of mind. But just as the facade of our city has changed, so too must the network of pipes and sewer that keeps our city running.

Ensuring our city, state, and federal government makes the necessary investments in our water infrastructure would prevent sudden and frequent water main breaks for our neighbors and make sure everyone continues to have access to clean drinking water no matter the state of our climate. 

Shahana Hanif is a member of the New York City Council representing the 39th district in Brooklyn.