New York’s Aging Water Infrastructure Needs an Upgrade in the Face of Climate Change

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“Water main breaks have caused outages in my community, and contamination from old pipes has left homes with rust-colored water for days…The people of New York deserve working, clean infrastructure. Real investments are the only way to get there.”

Michael Appleton/Mayor’s Photographic Office

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

Last January, more than 300 homes in Park Slope lost access to running water due to a broken water main. We fielded dozens of calls from concerned neighbors who weren’t sure when they might turn the tap back on. 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 the DEP dug the rupture of the water pipe. For nearly a week, as 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 throughout my community, and contamination from old pipes has left homes with rust colored water for days. Each time, my office sprang into action to coordinate with the DEP, supply our neighbors, and work quickly to resolve this pressing issue. The people of New York deserve working infrastructure and real investment is the only way to make it happen.

The ongoing and worsening climate crisis has brought more severe storms and put increasing pressure on our city’s aging infrastructure. Our 100+ year old infrastructure was pushed to the brink by extreme weather and exceeded our storm surge capacity, which was designed for storms of the past. Moreover, the day after Hurricane Ida, residents along the waterfront bore the brunt of the city’s sewage overflow as it filled their basements and homes. As storms worsen and our pipes continue to rust, New York City must act to address these structural inequalities before these crises become a daily occurrence.

To prepare our city for the future, our government must build resilient infrastructure to keep our neighbors safe and help our city adapt to this new normal. That starts with investing in better maintaining our water lines and dramatically increasing our storm surge capacity. Our office has been in contact with the DEP for urgent funding to increase storm surge protection capacity and upgrade our infrastructure.

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

However, increased 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 for 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 suitably renovated to withstand future flooding. We can increase investments in emergency preparedness and resources for those living in flood zones to ensure those most at risk are always prepared for the next storm. We can also invest in green 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 waiting for 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 it was not the first time and the reality has set in for most that it won’t be the last. When our city’s infrastructure was built hundreds of years ago, climate change was not a priority. But just as the face of our city has changed, so has the network of pipes and sewers that keeps our city running.

Ensuring that our city, state, and federal government make the necessary investments in our water supply infrastructure would prevent sudden and frequent water main breaks for our neighbors and ensure that everyone continues to have access to drinking water, whatever the state of our climate.

Shahana Hanif is a member of the New York City Council and represents Brooklyn’s 39th Ward.

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