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Stories from DEP is a collection of feature articles
published in DEP's internal newsletter, Weekly Pipeline.
This article was originally published November 22, 2011.

An Enduring Legacy: The New Deal's 'Water Waste Force'

Unemployment was at an all-time high of 25% and families were struggling to meet basic needs like food and shelter; banks and businesses were failing and homelessness was not uncommon. This was the state the country was in when Franklin Delano Roosevelt began his first term as president in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression.

In response to these worsening conditions, Roosevelt implemented a series of economic programs known as the “The New Deal” that aimed to provide relief, recovery and reform to a country that was suffering. One of these programs was the United States Works Progress Administration (WPA)—the largest of all the New Deal programs—which was created in 1935 to improve the economy and boost morale by employing millions of skilled and unskilled workers to carry out public works projects.

The Department of Water Supply, Gas and Electricity (DWSGE), a DEP predecessor agency, immediately applied to take on WPA employees who were greatly needed for a variety of projects. In the first year of the program, the average number of WPA workers employed by the department each month was about 2,100. This force consisted of 1,490 laborers, 593 skilled mechanics, and 52 draftsmen and clerks. The types of projects that the WPA employees worked on varied but the most common ones included making repairs to department buildings, pumping stations and gatehouses; erecting and painting fences; and building garages and repair yards. Another important project that WPA workers were involved with was a large scale real estate survey of NYC that was instrumental in the department’s expansion of the water supply system.

However, of all the work that was carried out by WPA workers, the most ambitious was the DWSGE’s effort to assemble a water waste force that would travel to thousands of houses and buildings all over the five boroughs to determine how the millions of gallons of unmetered water delivered to the city each day was being used, and more importantly, to identify where water was being wasted due to leaky fixtures.

The water waste force got its start in 1934, with 230 department employees and 270 employees furnished by the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA)—a WPA-predecessor program created by President Hoover in 1932. Those employees worked quickly and by the fall of 1935 a whopping 473,067 buildings—about 80% of the total number of unmetered buildings in NYC—had been examined.

Despite this achievement, as soon as the WPA forces became available in late 1935, the DWSGE decided to re-survey all the buildings. This was because WPA workers were more skilled and included people who were inspectors by trade. These new inspections were also a great success and by the end of 1936, 40% of all unmetered buildings had been re-inspected and subsequently water consumption was reduced. Despite this achievement, the agency acknowledged that these leak surveys would only continue to be effective if they were sustained over time, which would be difficult to do long-term. However, until a more permanent solution, like wide-spread metering, could be implemented, the water waste task force was a very effective and immediate answer.

Any doubt about the value of this program quickly disappeared when New York was hit by a severe drought in 1939 that would persist on and off for the next three years. The drought, which was caused by a lack of rainfall, was so severe that by October 1939 the demand for water actually exceeded the dependable supply available. In other words, if the drought persisted and consumption was not reduced, the reservoirs would have been depleted for the first time in city history.

In order to get the word out about the severity of the water shortage and the need for inspections, the department embarked on a massive conservation campaign urging the public to conserve water and check for leaky fixtures. By 1940 an astounding 2 million pamphlets describing the situation were distributed to schools and businesses across the city and over 35,000 posters were displayed in subway cars and distributed to civic organizations. This publicity campaign coupled with the WPA inspection project brought about fantastic results—between 1939 and 1940 water consumption was reduced by 75.7 million gallons per day.

One of the reasons that the water conservation campaign and WPA inspections were so effective was because of the department’s decision to attach the campaign to the war relief effort. DWSGE campaign posters of the time, which were made by the WPA War Services group, blared: “Your Wartime Duty! Don’t Waste Water.” They also encouraged people to make repairs to leaky fixtures that were identified by the WPA water waste force. New Yorkers took this message seriously and made a real effort to reduce their water use. Many even wrote letters to the department to report instances of water misuse, with some claiming that those who didn’t cooperate were actually spies trying to sabotage the city.

The WPA inspection project continued until 1942, when changes to the WPA worker requirements prohibited employees from “canvassing” private buildings and homes. In 1943 the entire WPA was disbanded by Congress as unemployment rates dropped, making the agency unnecessary. The department soon realized that without the WPA, manual inspections would be impossible to sustain. Thanks to the unprecedented amount of statistical information gathered and analyzed by the WPA about the city’s water use and waste habits, the department was able to come to the conclusion that more metering would be the most efficient way to continue to reduce water waste. Although large-scale meter installations of NYC buildings did not begin until decades later, the information gathered by the WPA was vital for planning future metering projects.

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