Don't Take Your Drinking Water for Granted this World Water Day

09/25/2009 05:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Where does your drinking water come from?

Natural historian Sidney Horenstein has been asking that question around New York City for decades. The answer he always gets is: "From the faucet."

This Sunday, however, is World Water Day, an event created by the United Nations to draw attention to the lack of safe drinking water around the world. (You might have seen the signs in your local Starbucks this week.) More than 1 billion people lack clean water worldwide, which results in disease, poverty and political instability.

"Waterborne illnesses kill 5 million people each year -- an estimated 5,000 children every day," NRDC Executive Director Peter Lehner told Congress in 2007 when testifying on the 35th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, whose passage marked one of NRDC's first major victories.

So this might be a good time for all of us who are lucky enough to have a clean, safe source of drinking water to think a little more about how this precious resource finds its way to our faucets.

The answer is quite different, of course, depending on where you live. But it's a good bet that no matter where you are, your drinking water isn't quite as safe as you might hope, thanks to everything from stormwater runoff to old plumbing to the effects of climate change. (Read more about water problems and solutions at NRDC's website.)

Where I live in New York City, for instance, the fresh water that we've relied on for generations could be threatened by plans to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation underlying the Catskill Mountains.

"Horizontal gas drilling carries the risk of contaminating the drinking water supply that serves half of the state -- including all of New York City -- with dangerous chemicals," NRDC's Kate Sinding and Richard Schrader said last year after Gov. David Paterson signed a law making it easier for gas companies to drill in the Catskills. "Before any drills break ground, the state must be sure that these activities are safe for New Yorkers and their environment."

In my mind, it's especially important that New Yorkers be vigilant about protecting their drinking water -- considering how hard they worked to get it here in the first place.

I learned about the history of New York's water supply system a year ago when I attended a talk by Horenstein, a retired geology professor and environmental educator at the American Museum of Natural History. In the late 1980s, Horenstein curated an exhibition called "On Tap: New York City Water." Twenty years later, he's still working to teach New Yorkers where their water really comes from.

Here are some of the highlights that I came away with. Notice how the history of New York's drinking water touches on many of today's most important issues -- everything from pollution and public health to politics and city planning:

Early worries

Supplying New York City with water has actually been an issue for four centuries, since explorer Henry Hudson first sailed up the river that now bears his name in 1609. He found that the river (actually a tidal estuary for much of its length) remained salty far upstream.

Fortunately, Lower Manhattan used to be covered with rolling hills left over from glacial deposits. They produced fresh water streams and springs that supplied the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, who also drank runoff from roofs. Only once the British took over in 1664 did New Yorkers start sinking wells into the ground.

Pigs and pollution

People probably won't be surprised that from the very beginning, New Yorkers had a penchant for dirtying things up.

The Collect Pond, near where City Hall now stands, was an important source of fresh water for early New York -- until it was filled in with trash and dirt from nearby hills that were flattened to make way for the city's growth. By 1811, the Collect was gone.

As the city grew, its many wells and springs became nearly unusable because of garbage dumped in the streets and free-roaming pigs. As water was pumped out of the ground, salt water infiltrated the aquifers, making the well water unfit to drink. Even the rain runoff from roofs was now filthy because of soot.

Alternative beverages

Never let it be said that New Yorkers aren't resourceful, though. Denied drinkable water, early New Yorkers got by largely on wine and beer.

In fact, when New York finally did get a suitable fresh water supply by the middle of the 19th century, the Temperance Societies were among its biggest fans. They hoped people would give up their booze for fresh water. Good luck there, guys.

Corruption and incompetence

After the Revolutionary War, city leaders were ready to go to work on a municipal water supply system. But "the duplicitous Aaron Burr," as he's remembered in many New York circles (he's also the guy who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel), convinced the state legislature to charter a private water supplier instead.

Burr's company was supposed to bring in fresh water from the Bronx River. Instead, it did things on the cheap by sinking a well at Reade and Chambers streets.

The well supplied a reservoir of 550,000 gallons, but the city needed 3 million. The company also went the cheap route with wooden pipes, made out of hollowed pine trees from the Adirondacks. By 1804, the company had laid 25 miles of pipe, but the system only reached 2,000 residents -- the wealthy ones, naturally -- who nevertheless complained about the quality of the water, which was fouled by the rotting wooden pipes.

Fire and pestilence

Waterborne diseases such as yellow fever and cholera swept through the city population in the early 1800s, killing thousands. In 1832, swarms of people left Lower Manhattan for places like Greenwich Village and Long Island to escape illness.

On April 14, 1835, the citizens of New York voted 17,330 to 5,963 to build a municipal water system. (The main opponents were outliers living in places like northern Manhattan who still had all the fresh water they needed.) Eight months later, on Dec. 16, the Great Fire destroyed most of the city's commercial district, some 700 buildings. The need for water was more urgent than ever.

Fountain frenzy

The building of the 40-mile-long Croton Aqueduct required a massive (for its time) bridge across the Harlem River. The project originally called for two 48-inch pipes to cross the bridge, but the lead engineer, John Jervis, thought 36-inch pipes would be adequate. "Big mistake," Horenstein said.

Fresh water began filling the Yorkville Reservoir (now the Great Lawn in Central Park) in 1842, and the city celebrated by building fountains and holding a five-mile-long parade on Oct. 14, 1842.

Within two decades, though, increased population, greater water usage and a drought required a 96-inch pipe to be installed on top of the two 36-inch ones across the river.

Never enough

Like all its predecessors, the Croton system quickly proved inadequate, and new dams and reservoirs had to be added. Today, New York gets water from three systems. The original Croton only supplies about 10 percent of the city's water needs (still mainly in the older parts of Manhattan), while the rest comes from the Catskills (completed in 1927) and the Delaware River (completed in 1967).

A third major underground water tunnel (with the not-so-imaginative name of Water Tunnel No. 3) is being built under Manhattan right now. One of the largest construction projects in the United States, it's expected to be completed in 2020. Once it's finished, tunnels No. 1 and 2 will need to be refurbished. Engineers are concerned about cracks and other possible problems.

Today, New York's water system provides 1.3 billion gallons a day to more than 8 million drinkers, and its quality is considered among the best in the world.

But if you learn anything from listening to Horensten, it's that we always seem to run out.

"Right now, when there's an abundance of water, people get into bad habits," Horenstein says. By reminding New Yorkers that their water doesn't just "from the faucet," he hopes to get them to think about conservation, even a little bit.

To me, that seems like a great lesson to remember on World Water Day.

This post also appears on NRDC's Switchboard blog, along with more about the importance of World Water Day.