Water managers look beyond drought

Population growth, development could make some places run dry

March 07, 2002|By Andrew C. Revkin | Andrew C. Revkin,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - With soil parched, reservoirs depleted and streams trickling at rates typical of a record summer heat wave, water managers for New York City and surrounding communities are scurrying to find new ways to increase supplies and cut demand.

It is not that they are worried about getting through the East Coast's current dry spell, which technically began in 1998 and - like all droughts - will end eventually. In fact, many water officials and experts say tough droughts in the 1960s and 1980s prompted conservation measures that have cut profligate water use.

The new effort is aimed at a point down the line - no one knows how far in the future - when spreading development reduces the soil's storage capacity, and the growing population and economy boost demand so much that some places run dry. For some communities, chronic water shortages could lead to a politician's ultimate nightmare - an immovable cap on economic growth.

"It's going to be a tough, dry season," said Bradley M. Campbell, the acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. But more important than getting through this year, he said, is changing practices so the metropolitan region can handle future, potentially larger, climate shifts comfortably. "We need to change the way we do business in managing water resources," he said.

Government hydrologists say a prolonged lack of precipitation and warm temperatures this winter are setting the metropolitan region up for a drought that could rival what is called the "drought of record," which drained reservoirs and wells from 1963 to 1965. New York City and most New Jersey counties have been under a drought warning since January.

The Delaware River Basin Commission, which controls Delaware River water used by 20 million people, issued a drought emergency in December that reduces allotments for New York City and the four states sharing the supply.

In New Jersey, some private water suppliers have begun offering steep discounts to large users when water is plentiful, to encourage those with storage capacity to fill up when water is abundant and cut water use.

Fundamental changes

But much more must be done, said Campbell, whose agency is trying to get developers to change their approach to some projects - to create parking lots with permeable material instead of asphalt, for example, allowing rain to percolate into the soil. The state also must clean up its galaxy of toxic waste sites, which taint ground water and keep that resource off limits for drinking, he said.

Eventually, fundamental shifts in development patterns will probably be needed, water policy experts in the region say.

"What comes first, the water supply or the housing?" said Gary N. Paulachok, the deputy Delaware River master, who is charged with making sure the users of the river's water are honoring binding agreements to share it.

"In a lot of cases," he said, "we see housing developments go in and then the search is on for a water supply."

To stave off trouble, New York City is taking a fresh look at a variety of ideas even as its engineers inspect equipment it last used in the drought emergency of 1989 to pump and treat water from the Hudson River 60 miles north of the city - the source of last resort.

It is considering buying small private water supplies south of its Delaware River reservoirs in the Catskills, which could help it meet its obligations under an interstate water compact. The city has to keep some water flowing in dry times to other users of the Delaware River in New Jersey and elsewhere downstream.

By gaining control of other water sources feeding into the Delaware, the city could satisfy its water-sharing requirement without taking as much from reservoirs holding the city's supply.

City officials have also started asking big commercial users of water to consider switching, where possible, to recycled wastewater for nondrinking purposes instead of using high-quality drinking water. "Ninety percent of the water we use does not go to human needs," said Charles G. Sturcken, chief of staff of the city's Department of Environmental Protection.

Reusing water

The goal, city officials said, would be to install systems for reusing water for such purposes, the way car washes and laundries capture, filter and reuse water that would otherwise go down the drain. One large consumer noted by Sturcken is the airports. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey uses tens of thousand of gallons of water a day to wash planes at the regional airports it operates.

To keep jobs and businesses coming to Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island without straining drinking water supplies, Sturcken said, the city is considering drawing undrinkable ground water from wells in Brooklyn and Queens to supply, at a discount rate, to businesses needing water for manufacturing.

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