James Salzman, an environmental law professor at Duke University, is the author of “Drinking Water: A History.”
As the fury of Hurricane Sandy crashed into the Northeast last month, online postings along the storm’s path recounted the collapse of one service after another — no lights, no heat, no phones, no subway and, ultimately, no Internet. But amid the darkened buildings and flooded subways of Lower Manhattan, one service remained largely intact and, as a result, largely ignored: the water supply. As Mayor Michael Bloomberg confidently tweeted, “NYC Tap Water is absolutely safe to drink.”
The media hardly noticed. We take easy access to reliable, clean drinking water for granted. But it hasn’t always been that way: Lack of safe drinking water has plagued American cities for most of their history. In fact, what’s truly remarkable is that the one problem New York did not face after Sandy was contaminated water.
The first Europeans to live in Manhattan, the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, got most of their water from a spring-fed pond later known as the Collect. As New York’s population increased, poor sanitation and effluent from tanneries and slaughterhouses fouled the local water sources. By 1748, Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist visiting the city, observed that the well water was so terrible, horses from out of town refused to drink it.
Building commenced on an ambitious plan for a steam-engine-powered waterworks to pump water through aqueducts, but this came to an abrupt end when British troops destroyed the new construction during the Revolutionary War.
Two decades later, in 1799, New York Assemblyman Aaron Burr — with the assistance of Alexander Hamilton, whom he would kill in a duel five years later — founded the Manhattan Company, which raised $2 million promising to “furnish and continue a supply of pure and wholesome water” to the city. But most of the money was lent to local businesses, and the institution eventually became the Chase Manhattan Bank. The company laid only 23 miles of pipe in three decades. In the early 19th century, the city was still drawing most of its water from the polluted Collect and suffered from cholera outbreaks.
Chastened by the Manhattan Company debacle, New York in the 1830s established a Board of Water Commissioners, which raised money to build a series of reservoirs far north of the city. It began piping water into the five boroughs in 1842. An expanded version of that system exists today, with more than 1 billion gallons daily coming from protected Delaware, Croton and Catskills watersheds. It was these gravity feeds and the reservoirs’ distance from the coast that saved New York’s water supply from Sandy’s wrath. Some New Jersey systems were not so protected, and residents had to boil water to be sure it was safe.
The resilience of the New York system sounds like a fitting epilogue to a triumphant story. But the drinking water in New York and other American cities remains under serious threat from sources both less obvious and less direct than natural disasters.