Printer Friendly
Translate Page
Sm Med Lg
Get Adobe Reader
NYC Hazards: Water Supply Disruptions


Since water is essential for survival, it's important to know what to do in the event of a water supply emergency. Water main breaks, drought, and water contamination can affect both water quality and use in New York City.

Water Main Breaks
In 2012, there were 347 breaks in the City's network of nearly 7,000 miles of water mains, down from a high of 632 in 2003. This year, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) averaged less than six breaks per 100 miles of pipe, well below the accepted industry average of roughly 23-25 breaks per 100 miles annually. Water main breaks may temporarily halt water supply to households and businesses in the surrounding areas. Breaks can also result in property damage, street and sidewalk closures, and traffic and business disruptions.

Temperature change causes most water main breaks. A 10-degree change in air or water temperature can cause pipes to contract or expand, making them fragile. When water or ground temperatures dip near the freezing point, it creates tremendous stress inside and outside the pipe. Additionally, some water pipes installed before World War II are made of cast iron — a brittle material susceptible to breakage.

If you see water coming up from the ground or roadway, or suspect a water main break, call 311 to reach DEP. If water is causing a dangerous condition, such as street or sidewalk collapse or severe indoor or outdoor flooding, call 911. Be prepared to provide:

  • A description of the condition
  • What is being affected (street, cellar, basement, subways, etc.)
  • The exact location of the problem
  • Your name, address and telephone number

You may also contact DEP via 311 if you lose water service, experience low water pressure or your home is flooded due to a water main break.

If you own a small business and your business facility sustains damage due to a water main break, contact the Department of Small Business Services to see what type of assistance may be available to you.

Urban droughts generally affect areas dependent on reservoirs for water, such as New York City. Droughts usually lead to restrictions on water use, such as bans on lawn watering and car washing.

A Drought Emergency is declared when there is a reasonable probability that continued dry periods could cause reservoirs to be severely strained.

DEP Drought Terms

  • DROUGHT WATCH: Declared when there is less than a 50 percent probability that either of the two largest reservoir systems, the Delaware (Cannonsville, Neversink, Pepacton, and Rondout Reservoirs) or the Catskill (Ashokan, and Schoharie Reservoirs), will fill by June 1 — the start of the water year.
  • DROUGHT WARNING: Declared when there is less than a 33 percent probability that either the Catskill or Delaware Systems will fill by June 1.
  • DROUGHT EMERGENCY: Declared when there is a reasonable probability that, without the implementation of stringent measures to reduce consumption, a protracted dry period would cause the City's reservoirs to be drained.

If there is a drought, authorities will advise you to conserve water. Please restrict your water use as much as possible. If the drought worsens, mandatory drought restrictions can be imposed. Conservation measures can slow the depletion rate of the stored waters and potentially postpone or eliminate the threat of serious water shortages.

Water Conservation Tips

  • Report open fire hydrants and street leaks to DEP via 311. An open hydrant can waste one million gallons of drinking water per day.
  • Take shorter showers or fill the tub only halfway and save water.
  • Don't run the tap while shaving or brushing your teeth.
  • Fix leaks. Leaky faucets alone can waste up to 1,000 gallons each week.
  • Run the dishwasher and washing machine only when full. Or use short cycles if available.
  • Don't use the toilet as a wastebasket. Each unnecessary flush can waste two to five gallons.
  • Install water-saving fixtures including showerheads and faucet aerators.
  • Sweep driveways and sidewalks clean rather than washing them down with a hose.

For more water-saving tips, see DEP's Dos and Don'ts of Water Conservation and NYC Water Use Restrictions.

Water Contamination
Water supply contamination has not been a significant hazard in New York City in the last century. Contaminated water supply can lead to illness and possibly death. If the contamination leads to an epidemic, it could severely tax the health care system.

If authorities determine that there is a concern about drinking water quality, you will be advised of what actions to take. In some cases, you may be told not to use water for cooking for drinking purposes unless it is boiled, treated with bleach or disinfected by other means. In an extreme case, you may be told not to use the water for cooking, drinking, hand-washing, or bathing purposes.

More Resources
Dos and Don'ts of Water Conservation (NYC Department of Environmental Protection)
NYC Water Use Restrictions (NYC Department of Environmental Protection)
Tips on Conserving Water (Red Cross)
Locating Safe Drinking Water (FEMA)

Back to Utility Disruptions homepage