NYC’s Giant Water Tunnel Begins Work On Final Shafts, Following 50 Years Of Construction


Out on the commercial again streets of Queens sit two dusty, gravel-covered tons. Hemmed in by auto-body outlets, graffiti-covered partitions and barbed wire fences, one homes an deserted trailer and a group of automobile doorways, whereas the opposite is dwelling to 3 feral cats: Rosie, Blackie and Angel.

Right here is the place the ultimate part of a 50-year lengthy journey to create a backup for the town’s water provide will quickly break floor, with employees blasting out two monumental shafts, burrowing down greater than 600 toes.

The shafts will join the encircling communities to Metropolis Tunnel No. 3, a 60-mile water supply system that the town has been constructing since 1970. They may even permit the town to close down and restore Metropolis Tunnel No. 2 for the primary time in 85 years. Overseen by the Division of Environmental Safety (DEP), Tunnel No. 3 is the most important capital mission in New York Metropolis’s historical past, costing greater than $6 billion.

Whereas quite a few journalists and politicians visited the subterranean community in previous a long time, its most up-to-date progress has been shrouded in thriller, due partially to safety issues. In response to the DEP, members of the press are not allowed to see any portion of the tunnel, its shafts or its valve chambers. The company even goes so far as limiting who can republish their archival photographs of the town’s water tunnels.

These precautions stem from the excessive stakes related to delivering 981 million gallons of water per day to New York Metropolis residents. This water reaches the town by an advanced community of aqueducts and water tunnels, flowing downhill from 19 separate reservoirs unfold throughout a 2,000-square-mile watershed.

Components of this infrastructure are greater than a century outdated. A serious motivation for developing Tunnel No. 3 is that the town has not been in a position to shut down and examine Metropolis Tunnel No. 1 or Metropolis Tunnel No. 2 since they have been put into operation in 1917 and 1936, respectively. If both of those earlier tunnels had failed earlier than the town completed No. 3, it could have been catastrophic, leaving hundreds of thousands of residents and companies with out ample water.

The site of Shaft 18B-1 in Maspeth, Queens,


The location of Shaft 18B-1 in Maspeth, Queens, April eighth, 2021

Nathan Kensinger for Gothamist

Whereas the Manhattan sections of Metropolis Tunnel No. 3 started delivering water in 1998 and 2013, the 11.3-mile-long stretch beneath Queens and Brooklyn has not but been totally activated regardless of being completed in 2001. 5 years in the past, after The New York Occasions reported the third tunnel had skilled a funding delay, Mayor Invoice de Blasio pledged to wrap up the mission by 2020. The mayor later stated it could be totally operational by 2025, in response to Politico New York. The development of Shafts 17B-1 and 18B-1, alongside quiet blocks in Maspeth and Lengthy Island Metropolis, represents the final two items wanted for the Brooklyn and Queens leg to totally ship the underground water to the folks.

These final two shafts at the moment are anticipated to be carried out by 2026, in response to the DEP, however the tunnel nonetheless received’t be full. The unique plans referred to as for yet another extension—a 14-mile conduit between Yonkers, the Bronx and Queens. All of those redundant passages—together with the unique tunnels—imply that the town can pull from varied reservoirs even when one tunnel fails.

All of the whereas, the local weather disaster continues to emphasize the town’s getting old water system. Together with infrastructure failures, droughts are thought of to be one of many largest hazards dealing with New York Metropolis’s water provide, in response to a 2014 report from NYC Emergency Administration. As temperatures across the area proceed to soar, the town will more and more see sizzling days, heatwaves, hotter summers and a better chance of droughts. In 2009, the New York Metropolis Panel on Local weather Change warned that the frequency of droughts hitting its watershed would possibly double by the 2050s. If these intense climate occasions turn into 5 instances extra frequent by the 2080s, as predicted, they may drain the town’s reservoirs.

The completion of Metropolis Tunnel. No. 3 would assist alleviate this coming local weather emergency, but it surely has value a long time of human toil. A number of generations of employees from the Bronx’s Laborers’ Native Union No. 147—whose members are nicknamed the Sandhogs—have gone underground to carve out the tunnel’s varied sections. Not less than 24 employees have misplaced their lives whereas developing the mission.

“We construct stuff that lasts 100 years, particularly the tunnel employees,” stated Richard T. Fitzsimmons, the enterprise supervisor of Native No. 147. Their half-century of sacrifice is a sampling of what humanity should put money into its infrastructure as we fail to adequately curb carbon emissions.

Inside Shaft 13B of City Tunnel No. 3


Inside Shaft 13B of Metropolis Tunnel No. 3, 2013

Tod Seelie for Gothamist

“Brooklyn Is Brutal”

In February, New York Metropolis introduced it had awarded the contract for the 2 Queens shafts to the Walsh Development Firm. Preparations at the moment are underway to start freezing the bottom for this $355 million mission, a step required to excavate all the way down to a secure depth for blasting with dynamite. Fitzsimmons expects that work will start on Shafts 17B-1 and 18B-1 this July.

“As soon as the bottom is frozen, we are able to go in and excavate the highest layer, the ‘delicate floor’ we name it, say 40 or 60 toes. After which we get into the rock and the dynamite,” stated Fitzsimmons. “Down about 100 toes, we are going to begin utilizing the powder. And this fashion, it insulates it from the neighborhood. We’ll get down far sufficient that we aren’t pulling photographs [blasting with dynamite] and waking folks up.”

The sandhogs, who received their title whereas working within the delicate, sandy soil beneath the Brooklyn Bridge within the late 1800s, have been concerned in developing all of New York Metropolis’s water tunnels, together with the Croton Aqueduct, the New Croton Aqueduct, and Metropolis Water Tunnel No. 1 and No. 2.

“We’re proud that our work continues to be in full operation. The busiest techniques on the planet—the subway system, the water system—constructed to final,” stated Fitzsimmons.

Inside the Croton Aqueduct


Contained in the Croton Aqueduct, July thirty first, 2017

Nathan Kensinger for Gothamist

The creation of New York’s water tunnels has been ongoing since 1837 when employees broke floor on the Croton Aqueduct, a 41-mile channel that delivered clear water from the Croton Reservoir to Manhattan. New York’s inhabitants and footprint have solely grown since then, requiring the sandhogs to create bigger and longer water tunnels each few generations.

“Most individuals don’t even actually comprehend it’s happening. They do not know,” stated Dale Estus, a retired sandhog who dug a number of sections of Metropolis Tunnel No. 3 from 1972 to 2009. “What did I like about it? The sense of getting one thing carried out. Getting one thing achieved. There’s some issues that we did that will blow your thoughts.”

Estus was a part of a workforce that carved out 5 and a half miles of the water tunnel beneath Brooklyn, labor that he describes as soiled, harmful however crucial.

Brooklyn has a number of the hardest rock you possibly can ever think about.

Dale Estus, a retired sandhog

“Brooklyn has a number of the hardest rock you possibly can ever think about. Oh, Brooklyn is brutal,” stated Estus. “Within the Brooklyn part, I believe a few of our greatest [work] shifts have been about 30 toes, and that was a very good shift, to go 30 toes. We had shifts the place we hadn’t gone 10 toes.”

During the last 184 years, this harmful, unseen labor has killed or maimed lots of of employees. Huge tunnel boring machines help as we speak’s sandhogs, however they nonetheless make use of lots of the similar strategies as their grandfathers, typically blasting their manner by strong rock utilizing hand drills and dynamite. Estus helped excavate shafts in Brooklyn and Manhattan, utilizing dynamite to dig lots of of toes into the earth.

Learn Extra: Big Tunnel Boring Machine Smashes Its Manner By means of Ongoing Aqueduct Restore

“Shafts are often moist. There’s often water raining down on you, and they are often chilly depressing locations,” stated Estus. “It’s harmful. There isn’t any query it’s… Within the shafts, you at all times have the hazard of one thing falling from the highest. You’ve gotten folks working above you, they usually need to be continually vigilant that nothing will get away from them.”

Regardless of generations of arduous labor and even more durable sacrifices, Metropolis Tunnel No. 3 will most likely not be accomplished by the present era of sandhogs.

“That is how large it’s: my father labored on it. I labored on it from 1978 and am nonetheless working for it as we speak. My son has labored on it. And the way in which we’re going, his sons are liable to work on it,” stated Fitzsimmons, who compares Metropolis Tunnel No. 3 to the Roman aqueducts and the Russian subway techniques. “You’re speaking about 4 generations, on one job.”

The site of Shaft 17B-1 in Long Island City, Queens,


The location of Shaft 17B-1 in Lengthy Island Metropolis, Queens, April eighth, 2021

Nathan Kensinger for Gothamist

Shaft 17B-1 will likely be positioned in Lengthy Island Metropolis, Queens. A number of building trailers are already on website. The lot was beforehand utilized by the Division of Transportation as a storage yard for outdated lamp posts, in response to neighbors. It was dwelling to a big warehouse and a feral cat colony with 30 felines, which largely disappeared as employees cleared out the location.

Shaft 18B-1 will likely be positioned in Maspeth, Queens. There aren’t any building trailers but, but it surely has been cleared out and fenced off. This triangular lot is bordered on two sides by the Lengthy Island Railroad, whereas the third options auto physique outlets and a trucking firm.

“When all that is on-line, we’re going to return and shut down water tunnel No. 2 and restore the entire thing,” stated Fitzsimmons. The variety of repairs wanted in that tunnel is unknown.

The New Croton Reservoir


The New Croton Reservoir, July tenth, 2017

Nathan Kensinger for Gothamist

To The Final Drop

The New York Metropolis watershed has a historical past of frequent droughts relationship again over the past 500 years, in response to a 2013 paper revealed within the Journal of Local weather. A 23-year megadrought as soon as parched the area throughout the 1500s.

“These droughts would possibly catch some folks off guard,” stated Dr. Neil Pederson, a Senior Ecologist at Harvard Forest who co-authored the paper. “However for these of us who assume in longer time scales, it’s a pure a part of the system.”

Nonetheless, New York Metropolis has confronted at the very least 9 durations of drought since 1939. The worst bout arrived within the Nineteen Sixties, when probably the most extreme drought in centuries led officers to declare a Federal catastrophe throughout New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. The state of affairs turned so dire that the town contemplated constructing nuclear-powered desalination crops. They’d have generated just some million gallons of emergency freshwater a day—far beneath the town’s demand. So whereas regional droughts aren’t uncommon, their tempo is projected to vary.

It’s extra widespread than it has been in our lifetimes.

Dr. Neil Pederson, Harvard Forest

“It’s extra widespread than it has been in our lifetimes, within the Japanese United States,” Pederson stated.

The previous couple of a long time may give us an thought of what would possibly lay forward, as human-made local weather change more and more impacts precipitation and temperatures within the area. Throughout a 40-year interval beginning within the Seventies, the New York Metropolis watershed noticed an unprecedented span of heavy rainfall, but it surely additionally skilled at the very least six water provide warnings and emergencies brought on by minor droughts, a regarding signal that the system wouldn’t fare effectively throughout extra extreme or frequent droughts.

The New York Metropolis watershed is anticipated to see one other moist spell in coming a long time, with extra rainfall and snowfall arriving throughout sure seasons, at the same time as droughts could turn into extra frequent and extreme in others. The DEP has been planning for this new local weather actuality.

“DEP has a workforce of scientists engaged on the most important local weather change research of any U.S. water utility,” in response to a press release from the company. “There are detailed drought plans, together with how the reservoirs are operated and the way we talk conservation measures with our prospects. New York Metropolis is best positioned to resist droughts now greater than ever as a consequence of deliberate water conservation packages over the past 30 years which have seen day by day water consumption drop by greater than a 3rd.”

These efforts are mirrored by the town’s water consumption, which has dropped over time regardless of the inhabitants’s constant development. In 1979, New Yorkers used 1.5 billion gallons of water per day, however the day by day mark had fallen to 981 million gallons by final yr. It was the bottom fee of consumption for the reason that Fifties, and its trigger might be traced to a long time of efforts by the DEP to create a extra resilient, environment friendly water system. The company has spent hundreds of thousands of {dollars} in repairs to leaking tunnels, packages to cut back water consumption by colleges and metropolis businesses and on the introduction of low-flow taps, showers and bogs.

Shaft 23B in Red Hook, Brooklyn


Shaft 23B in Purple Hook, Brooklyn, April eighth, 2021

Nathan Kensinger for Gothamist

As soon as shafts 17B-1 and 18B-1 are on-line, regulators will examine the Brooklyn and Queens sections of Metropolis Tunnel No. 3. Its water will likely be eliminated—its partitions cleaned, repaired and sterilized earlier than they’ll carry recent consuming water to greater than half of the town’s inhabitants. The inspection of Metropolis Tunnel No. 3 will finish at Shaft 23B in Purple Hook, Brooklyn, the ultimate shaft on the tunnel’s route. Walsh Development is at the moment making ready that website for work.

Even then, the years past will likely be unsure.

“I used to be born on the tail finish of the Nineteen Sixties drought. I actually can’t fathom what that was like, and I can’t fathom how we’d do,” stated Pederson. “When the six-year droughts come, which they are going to sooner or later, I can’t fathom how we are going to reply, aside from that people are inventive and adaptable.”