09/26/2012 06:00 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2014

Climate Change And Drinking Water: Report Indicates Hurricane Irene Polluted New York's Catskills Watershed

Over one year later, parts of the East Coast are still recovering from Hurricane Irene, the Category 1 hurricane that first hit the outer banks of North Carolina and made its way up the coast, tempering into a tropical storm by the time it reached New York. Forty-nine people died as a direct result of the hurricane, which racked up an estimated $15.8 billion in total damage. But truly lasting devastation could come from the effects of hurricanes like Irene on watersheds which contribute to drinking water supplies.

A recent study from Yale University, published in Geophysical Research Letters, indicates that the water quality of lakes and coastal systems "would be altered if hurricanes intensify in a warming world," according to a press release. Co-authors Bryan Yoon, a doctoral student, and Peter A. Raymond, an ecosystem ecology professor, recorded amounts of dissolved organic matter in the Catskill watershed, which provides the majority of New York City's drinking water.

While dissolved organic matter is not necessarily a bad thing, it can be detrimental to the aquatic environment in excessive amounts, the study found. The matter can bind to metal pollutants and carry them, interfere with ultraviolet processes and aquatic metabolism and can even lead to the formation of carcinogenic disinfection by-products in chlorination.

"All of those problems become more serious as larger quantities of dissolved organic matter are transported to lakes and coastal systems," Yoon said in a statement.

With Hurricane Irene's record rainfall, Yoon and Raymond found that the water dispelled from Esopus Creek, which feeds into the one of the Catskill watershed's two reservoirs, increased 330-fold, causing an unparalleled amount of dissolved organic matter to flow into the water supply. Yoon likened the immense amount of drastic increase to someone eating 40 percent of his annual food within a few days.

"Hurricane Irene was a prime example that there is no limit to the amount of dissolved organic matter that can be exported by extreme rain events," Yoon said.

Though the study focuses on the detrimental effects of Hurricane Irene on the Catskills watershed, it does not specify the breadth of the potential damage to New York's drinking water. With the New York City Department of Environmental Protection actively monitoring the city's water supply system, there's no reason to think New York's water is unsafe to drink.

However, the implications of the study's outcome do not bode well for New York if another hurricane of equal or higher intensity were to hit the coast in the future.

The study follows a recent report commissioned by 20 governments that indicates more than 100 million people could die by 2030, if crucial climate change issues are not addressed. Experts predicted a rise in extreme storm and weather conditions, but are still hesitant to attribute individual extreme weather events directly to climate change.

Yet with more reports on the hazards of climate change appearing -- from food distribution risks to threats against the quality of drinking water supplies -- the outlook for the future becomes increasingly serious.



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