New York Village Suspects Aqueduct in Flooding

In New York’s Ulster County hamlet of Wawarsing, residents’ yards are water drenched in the driest of weather and homeowners are starting to wonder if an aqueduct one-fourth of a mile from their neighborhood is to blame for the flooding.

The Delaware Aqueduct is a water tunnel that runs deep underground and delivers about half of New York City’s drinking water.  The city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has acknowledged that two 45-mile-long stretches of the aqueduct—one in Wawarsing and the other near the Hudson River in Orange County—have been leaking for 20 years.  The stretches are located the Rondout-West Branch Tunnel.  City officials have long studied the two leaks and have used dye tests, a robotic submarine, and divers and say the leaks are dumping 14 to 36 million gallons daily.  The department says it is committed to repairing the cracks; however, removing the water from the tunnel to make repairs could jeopardize its structural integrity and could stress the city’s water supply.

The department has not released a timetable, a projected budget, or a start date and officials are not prepared to acknowledge that chronic basement flooding—which residents say has worsened in the last five years—is from the leaking aqueduct.  Department employees recently took water samples from several homes to determine if their characteristics match those from the Rondout Reservoir, which feeds into the Rondout-West Branch Tunnel.  “We do not chlorinate out of Rondout, so there’s no strong tracer element,” Paul V. Rush, deputy commissioner for the department’s Bureau of Water Supply, said adding, “The preliminary results don’t conclusively say that it’s 100 percent our water.  There’s snowmelt.  There’s surface water.  There are other influences on there.  But we certainly want to find out whether the water is ours.  We know that in that area in the past we have positively identified that there is water coming from the tunnel.”

A city consultant detected water from the tunnel in several Wawarsing area springs.  And as far back as 1993, the department investigated flooding on one property in Wawarsing and concluded it originated from the aqueduct. Mr. Rush said that the agency thought the problem abated and complaints started only recently.  Meanwhile, homeowners say water spurts up from basement floors and some have multiple pumps and generators to ensure water can be removed during a power failure, black hoses attached to sump pumps snake across yards, and residents elevate washing machines and furnaces to keep them dry, and others have spent thousands to replace appliances and soggy Sheetrock.

The city has been criticized for not quickly addressing problems with the aging Delaware Aqueduct.  In 2001, the environmental group Riverkeeper issued a report called “Finger in the Dike, Head in the Sand:  DEP’s Crumbling Water Supply Infrastructure,” which said, “The agency’s molasses-like research and inept testing strategy seems calculated to delay the discovery of bad news until Mayor Giuliani’s term has expired.”  The report quoted engineers who said the 13 ½-foot-wide aqueduct could easily collapse if drained for repairs since the flow of water helps hold up tunnel walls that date from the 1940s.

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