Protecting America’s Clean Drinking Water

Protecting America’s Clean Drinking Water

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ROLL CALL 12/29/14
By Michael Shank and Rep Charles Rangel

The causes and consequences of the hottest year on record, which is now shaping up to be 2014 according to the World Meteorological Organization and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are likely to have a lasting impact on New York State and New York City’s pristine water supply if we’re not careful. And while we’re glad that the Water for the World Act of 2014 cleared Congress recently, which improves access to water worldwide, the problem of water scarcity remains a serious issue in America.

To be clear, New York isn’t facing the prospect of California-style drought devastation, their worst in 1200 years, since New York’s precipitation levels remain strong, though erratic (e.g. Buffalo’s freak snow), and our watersheds generally healthy.

Nor are the higher temperature-induced toxic algae blooms in Ohio, which prevented Toledo residents from accessing drinkable water and forced Ohio Governor Kasich to declare a state of emergency, plaguing our fresh water reservoirs in New York’s Catskill, Delaware and Croton watersheds.

But New York’s drinking water, coming from one of the last unfiltered water supplies in America and providing over 1 billion gallons of clean water daily to more than 9 million New Yorkers, is clearly at risk as global temperatures increase. New York’s feat of gravity-fed engineering, in disrepair due to daily multi-million-gallon leaks in the 6,000-mile network of pipes and aqueducts, is under threat now more than ever before.

Consider the ways. First, as the world warms and extreme weather accompanies dramatic temperature fluctuations, freak snows and flash flooding become more common. This flushes fertilizer, manure, sewage treatment plant discharges, car and power plant emissions, and more, into our watersheds.

Couple this with the fact that the New York Farm Bureau continues to oppose the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to limit runoff of pollutants, and now certain agricultural areas, such as farm ponds and irrigation ditches, are exempt from the Clean Water Act oversight, an exemption that was included the budget bill that just passed Congress.

All of this makes the risk of contamination exponentially greater and makes any effort by New York’s Watershed Agricultural Council, for example, which incentivizes farmers to keep cow excrement from flowing into drinking water reservoirs, all the more difficult.

Second, our planet is heating up thanks to energy choices that are emissions and water intensive and a continuation of this trend has a direct impact on New York’s drinking water. Make no mistake, 2014 was the hottest year on record because we’re now emitting more greenhouse gases than ever before.

Any energy choice, then, that deepens our dependence on fossil fuels will only increase the likelihood of warming, imperiling water supplies through more rapid evaporation. And since fossil fuels have the capacity to contaminate water supplies — either from toxic chemicals used during shale extraction, the disposal of waste post-extraction, or earthquakes that result from fracking — the need to transition to cleaner and greener energy options is a security imperative.

Recently Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned fracking in the state of New York, following the prudent advice of his environmental and health regulators regarding the adverse health impacts from fracking in the West-of-Hudson portion of New York City’s watershed. There are ample peer-reviewed studies that show fracking places water quality, and thus public health, at risk. Let’s hope the governor’s ban sticks and serves as a model for the rest of the nation.

Third, with hottest years come more frequent super storms, as New Yorkers know well after Superstorm Sandy, and the potential for imperiled drinking water. But this isn’t just about a rising sea level, a threat that is bound to affect Manhattan sooner than later (an increase of five feet by 2100 by some estimations).

This is about rising turbidity in NYC’s water supply. This extra sediment, washed in during extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy, poses a threat to public health as a Harvard study showed. According to Harvard, higher turbidity correlates strongly with higher emergency room admission levels, increasing the public health costs associated with global warming. Yale weighed in later noting that storms caused by global warming are making watersheds more turbid.

Keeping New York watershed waters clear and unclouded, then, requires a long-term commitment to preventing the planet from overheating. If New Yorkers want their water to remain pure and unfiltered, if they don’t want to pay for a filtration system that could cost $8 billion to $12 billion for construction and $350 million per year to operate, urgent action is needed. Purchasing and protecting hundreds of thousands of vulnerable acreage surrounding the watersheds would be a good first step.

Transitioning the state to renewable energy, instead of more oil and gas extraction, would also protect water supplies and help prevent a warming planet and the extreme weather that comes with it. Manhattan, and its nearby municipal neighbors, cannot stomach any more Superstorm Sandys, nor are rising sea levels a tenable proposition for the Financial District.

New York’s watersheds, and the pristine drinking water they produce, are essential to our survival and if we fail to act now to protect them, we put our health on the chopping block. Before 2015 heats up, and the years of living dangerously become more frequent, the time for New York leadership is now. Our lives depend on it.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel is a Democrat from New York’s 13th District and is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Michael Shank, Ph.D, is director of media strategy at Climate Nexus and adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.