We invite students to share their water knowledge and express their creativity through a fun annual program. Our Water Resources Art & Poetry Contest complements STEM and the humanities, as it relates to various aspects of water and the environment. Each year, second through twelfth grade students attending public, independent, charter or parochial schools (or homeschooled) in New York City and East and West of Hudson Watersheds create original art and compose poetry that reflects an appreciation for our shared water resources.
To view student entries from our previous art and poetry contests, visit our Flickr Page.
Second through twelfth grade public, independent, charter, parochial, and homeschooled students in New York City and the East and West of Hudson Watersheds are eligible to participate. Download the NYC Water Story Map to see watershed boundaries.
Registration and Submission
Entries can address an original idea that relates to NYC’s water resources or one or more of the following topic questions.
Water—A precious resource
Water is valuable to us because it is the source of life for all living creatures, including humans. Less than 1% of Earth’s water is fresh and available, making freshwater a limited resource on our planet. Our clean, reliable water supply is something many New Yorkers take for granted. But for hundreds of years, clean water was not a fact of life for the people of our city. In 1842, more than 180 years ago, clean water flowed for the first time from upstate reservoirs into New York City. Today, an amazing system of reservoirs and lakes, aqueducts, tunnels and water mains distributes approximately 1 billion gallons of water daily to over 9 million people. Throughout its history, New York City’s ability to provide a reliable source of water for its citizens has allowed it to grow and develop into a great urban center.
NYC tap water helps you maintain a healthy weight because water contains zero calories, zero sugar and zero fat. A typical 12-ounce can of soda contains about 150 calories and the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar. Sports drinks, which are marketed as healthy alternatives, have as many calories as sugary beverages and usually contain high levels of sodium. Drinking just one 20 ounce soda a day translates to eating 50 pounds of sugar a year. Many of us consume too much sugar without realizing it. Sugar in sweetened drinks contains extra calories that can lead to obesity and diabetes. Drinking NYC water is not only good for you; it is a great alternative to sugary drinks and helps you stay in shape.
It’s Healthy: NYC tap water helps you maintain a healthy weight because water contains zero calories, zero sugar and zero fat. A typical 12-ounce can of soda contains about 150 calories and the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar. Sports drinks, which are marketed as healthy alternatives, have as many calories as sugary beverages and usually contain high levels of sodium.
It’s Affordable: NYC water is a great deal. At approximately one penny per gallon, it is about 1,000 times less expensive than bottled water.
It’s Green: Plastic water bottles produced for the U.S. use 1.5 million barrels of oil a year—enough to power 250,000 homes or 100,000 cars all year. And it takes more than 3 liters of water to produce each bottled liter of water.
It’s Convenient: NYC water is available right from your tap. Our Water-On-the-Go fountains also make tap water easy to get in public places in each of the five boroughs during the summer.
Yes! In December 2017, the member states of the United Nations decided that from 2018 until 2028 they will work together on worldwide water challenges. This period of 10 years is called “The Water Action Decade.” The goals of the decade are to prevent floods, droughts, and water pollution. But also, to realize that more people need better access to clean drinking water and proper sanitation. For example, 2.2 billion people around the world are living without access to safe water! In March 2023, the countries of the United Nations will come together in NYC to talk about water solutions. Representatives will also agree on actions so that at the end of the decade in 2028 water is managed better worldwide. The conference will take place around World Water Day on March 22. Every year on this day the world celebrates water and takes action to solve water problems.
In March 2023, the world will gather in NYC for a United Nations Conference dedicated to water. The goals of the conference are to unite the world and create awareness on water as an enabler, accelerator and solution for the sustainable development of our planet, now and in the future. A Water Week of fun and educational events will be organized to help connect people to NYC”s unique waterways and the watersheds we live in. As a student, you can help by thinking critically, being curious, and understanding the magnitude of global water challenges. Working together is Important for our future!
During the New York Water Week, you could:
The New York City Water Supply System
A watershed is a geographic area whose rainfall, snowmelt, streams and rivers all flow or drain into a common body of water, such as a reservoir, lake or bay. Ultimately, most watersheds in the U.S. drain into the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans or the Gulf of Mexico. Whether your drinking water comes from a surface supply—reservoirs, rivers or lakes—or underground sources called aquifers, everyone lives in a watershed. Water quality protection is important for all of us.
New York City’s drinking water supply comes from the Croton Watershed (East of Hudson) and from the Catskill and Delaware Watersheds (West of Hudson). The New York City water supply system is comprised of 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes which are located as far as 125 miles away from the City’s five boroughs and are interconnected by a complex series of tunnels and aqueducts.
Indigenous communities, such as the Lenape, relied on freshwater springs, streams, and ponds for a water supply close to where they lived. By the 1600s, early Dutch and British colonists obtained groundwater from shallow, privately owned wells. In 1677, the first public well was dug in front of the old fort at Bowling Green. In 1776, when the population reached approximately 22,000, a reservoir was constructed on the east side of Broadway between Pearl and White Streets. Water was distributed through hollow logs laid in the main streets. After exploring alternatives for increasing supply, the City decided to obtain more freshwater from the Croton River, in what is now Westchester County, and to build an aqueduct to carry it to the City. This aqueduct, known today as the Old Croton Aqueduct, had a capacity of about 90 million gallons per day (mgd) and was placed into service in 1842. Water flowed by gravity to two distribution reservoirs located in Manhattan at 42nd Street (discontinued in 1890) and in Central Park south of 86th Street (discontinued in 1925). In 1883, a commission was formed to build a second aqueduct from the Croton Watershed as well as additional storage reservoirs. This aqueduct, known as the New Croton Aqueduct, was placed into service in 1890.
Demand for water continued to grow as the City consolidated into the five boroughs of Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. In 1905 the Board of Water Supply was created by the State Legislature. After careful study, the City decided to develop the Catskill Mountain region as an additional water source. The Board of Water Supply proceeded to construct dams to impound the waters of the Esopus Creek in the Catskills. This project created the Catskill System, including the Catskill Aqueduct, Ashokan Reservoir completed in 1915 and the Schoharie Reservoir in 1926. In 1927, the Board of Water Supply submitted a plan to develop the upper tributaries of the Delaware River within the State of New York. However, work was delayed by an action brought by the State of New Jersey in the Supreme Court of the United States to prevent the City and State of New York from using the waters of any Delaware River tributary. In May 1931, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the right of the City to increase its water supply using the headwaters of the Delaware River. Construction of the Delaware System began in 1937 and was completed in 1964, including the Delaware Aqueduct, and the Rondout, Neversink, Pepacton, and Cannonsville Reservoirs. People living in the Catskill Mountains at this time sacrificed a lot to make way for the new water systems. Eminent domain was used to remove farms, cemeteries, and entire villages from the region to build large dams and new reservoirs. The City also required watershed communities to meet new sanitary standards to keep local farms and sewers from polluting the water supply.
Today, water for New York City comes from three upstate supply systems that include 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes with a total storage capacity of approximately 570 billion gallons.
This year marks the 175th anniversary of the High Bridge! The High Bridge is New York City’s oldest standing bridge and the most celebrated part of the famed Old Croton Aqueduct. It is also an engineering marvel. The central element of the original Croton water system, it once carried water across the Harlem River from the mainland to Manhattan Island in pipes still beneath its deck. The 41-mile Old Croton Aqueduct was world famous when it first delivered water to New York City on July 4, 1842. By 1848 water flowed by gravity from the Croton Reservoir in Westchester County, across the Harlem River on the High Bridge, eventually filling two above-ground reservoirs on the present sites of the Great Lawn in Central Park and the New York Public Library on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Thirty-six million gallons of water a day flowed across the High Bridge in two 36-inch cast iron pipes. The flow was increased in 1862 when a 90-inch diameter wrought iron pipe was laid above the original pipes. The High Bridge is 1,450 feet long and the walkway is 123-feet above the high water mark of the river. Originally, 15 Roman-style granite arches graced the bridge; the five arches spanning the river were later replaced with a single steel arch to facilitate river navigation. The High Bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of the Old Croton Aqueduct National Historic Landmark designation. It has a new life as a great public space and greenway link, so take a walk across the High Bridge today and learn about the history of the New York City Water Supply System.
The Central Park Reservoir was renamed the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in 1994, after the widow of the late President John F. Kennedy and Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. When originally constructed in 1862, it was called Lake Manahatta. It served as additional storage for the nearby 35-acre Yorkville Reservoir built by the City as a distributing reservoir for the Croton water system, New York’s first out-of-city water supply system located in Westchester County. Today the Central Park Reservoir plays an important role in the City’s ecology. Woodchucks, turtles, waterfowl—including the rare double-breasted cormorants—and many fish species make the reservoir home. Plant life such as cattails, sumac, maples and elms, as well as cherry trees that were a gift from the Japanese, are also visible around the reservoir.
New York City’s drinking water supply comes from the rain and snow that falls on three watersheds in upstate New York: the Croton Watershed (East of Hudson), and Catskill and Delaware Watersheds (West of Hudson). NYC’s water supply system covers a large area of forests, farms, and towns of eight counties, east and west of the Hudson River. Within the watersheds, freshwater flows into streams, rivers, and tunnels before collecting in 19 reservoirs and three protected lakes. Every day, one billion gallons of clean drinking water is supplied to New Yorkers, traveling from as far as 125 miles away through an essential system of aqueducts, tunnels, and water mains.
The quality of our source waters in the Catskill and Delaware watersheds depends on the health and vitality of upstate forests. Because forests cover more than 75% of the 1.2 million acres in the New York City watershed area, rain and snowmelt that drains into watershed streams, lakes and reservoirs is naturally filtered. Overhanging tree branches and roots keep water cool and provide habitats for wildlife. Tree roots also help provide stability to soil, reducing erosion, and absorb runoff, reducing excess nutrients getting into watershed streams and reservoirs. Poorly managed forests can increase the amount of nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorous, that enter our water supply and degrade overall water quality.
Water is distributed by tunnels in New York City. Tunnel No. 1 was put into service in 1917 and Tunnel No. 2 in 1936. City Tunnel No. 3 is a project that will allow for the inspection and repair of City Tunnels No. 1 and 2.
City Tunnel No. 3 is the largest capital construction project in New York City’s history and is one of the world’s engineering marvels. Construction began in 1970 and will soon be completed at a total cost of $6 billion. The tunnel was built in four stages and totals more than 60 miles in length.
Each year, we produce a Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report. This report is prepared in accordance with the New York State Sanitary Code, the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The regulations require all drinking water suppliers to provide the public with an annual statement describing the sources and quality of its water supply. Water quality results and water quality testing is presented in this report.
New York City uses approximately one billion gallons of water every day. The average New Yorker uses more than 100 gallons of water each day. To calculate your daily water use, use our Water Use Calculation Worksheet. After determining how much water you use each day at home and school, consider how much water you consume in total, including the food we eat, clothing we wear, technology we use, and more! Visit the Water Footprint Calculator to learn more.
For a map of how much water is being consumed today: Current Reservoir Levels.
Trout are indicators of clean water because they are very sensitive to changes in their environment. A change in water temperature, water clarity, dissolved oxygen, ammonia levels and pH could adversely affect trout populations and their survival.
Farmers help protect water quality by utilizing best management practices that do not release agricultural pollutants such as pathogens, nutrients, and sediment into nearby streams that flow into reservoirs. They can also protect water quality by having a strong knowledge and understanding regarding animal health, nutrient management, and other agricultural topics.
The Delaware Aqueduct supplies approximately 50% of NYC’s daily water needs and will require a shutdown for six to eight months as we connect and test a bypass tunnel that is currently being constructed parallel to the aqueduct. Since the 1990s, we have been monitoring leaks in a portion of the Delaware Aqueduct that are estimated to release about 20 million gallons of water per day. To repair the leaks, we developed a plan to temporarily shut down the leaking portion of the aqueduct to carry out repairs. During this temporary shutdown, scheduled for 2023, water from the Delaware system west of the Hudson River will be unavailable. To ensure a continued supply of drinking water during this time, we have developed projects to optimize water supply and encourage water conservation citywide.
The New York City Wastewater Treatment System
Used water goes into New York City’s extensive wastewater treatment system. This amazing system that cleans our wastewater consists of a network of over 7,500 miles of sewer pipes, 144,000 stormwater catch basins, 96 wastewater pumping stations that transport it to 14 wastewater resource recovery facilities located throughout the five boroughs.
Wastewater resource recovery facilities, also called wastewater treatment plants or water pollution control plants, remove pollutants from wastewater before clean water is released to local waterways. At the facilities, physical and biological processes closely mimic how wetlands, rivers, streams and lakes naturally purify water. Treatment is quick, taking only about seven hours to remove most of the pollutants from the wastewater. In the natural environment, this process could take many weeks and nature alone cannot handle the volume of wastewater that New York City produces. At the City’s wastewater resource recovery facilities, wastewater undergoes five major processes: preliminary treatment, primary treatment, secondary treatment, disinfection and finally, sludge treatment. Primary and secondary treatments remove about 85% to 95% of pollutants from the wastewater before the treated wastewater is disinfected and released into local waterways. Sludge, the solid organic waste in wastewater, is digested and is then dewatered. The resulting material, known as biosolids, can then be applied to land to improve vegetation or processed further as compost or fertilizer. As sludge is digested, methane gas (called biogas) is also recovered and can be used for electricity and heating needs at the facilities.
The Visitor Center at Newtown Creek is located at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Resource Recovery Facility, the largest of the 14 wastewater treatment facilities in the City. The Visitor Center features interpretative exhibits, scale models, and an enriching educational experience. Students, educators, and the public can schedule a visit to the Visitor Center at Newtown Creek to see a complex, working facility and learn more about the process of wastewater treatment in NYC.
The Newtown Creek Nature Walk is a half–mile public walkway along Newtown Creek. The walk affords visitors a unique view of the settling tanks and digesters at our Newtown Creek Wastewater Resource Recovery Facility, and is a good place to explore and learn about wastewater treatment, harbor water quality, and the history of New York City
Harbor Water Quality and Healthy Marine Ecosystems
Jamaica Bay is a 31-square-mile water body with a broader watershed of approximately 142 square miles, which includes portions of Brooklyn, Queens, and Nassau County. The bay is a diverse ecological resource that supports multiple habitats, including open water, salt marshes, grasslands, coastal woodlands, maritime shrublands, and brackish and freshwater wetlands. These habitats support 91 fish species, 325 species of birds, and many reptile, amphibian, and small mammal species.
The Staten Island Bluebelt is an innovative, ecologically sound and cost-effective stormwater management technique for approximately one third of Staten Island’s land area. The program preserves natural drainage corridors, called Bluebelts, including streams, ponds, and other wetland areas. Preservation of these wetland systems allows them to perform their natural functions of conveying, storing, and filtering stormwater. In addition, the Bluebelts provide important community open spaces and diverse wildlife habitats. The Bluebelt Program saves tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure costs when compared to providing conventional storm sewers for the same land area. This program demonstrates how wetland preservation can be economically prudent and environmentally responsible.
It is important to keep storm drains clear and streets litter-free because litter in the street can be washed into the City’s storm drains (catch basins) when it rains. Some of this litter ends up at NYC’s wastewater resource recovery facilities, but some may end up in our Harbor as well. When litter and debris become water-borne, these items are known as floatables. Common floatables include plastic and glass bottles, plastic bags, cigarette butts, paper and wrappers, takeout containers, and aluminum cans. These items are unsightly and can harm fish and other wildlife that become entangled in them or mistakenly eat them. Some floatables can take hundreds of years to decompose; the litter we create today will still be a problem for many years to come.
Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) happen when a wastewater resource recovery facility or parts of the Sewer System get too full, usually when there is a big rain event or snowstorm. When this occurs, a diluted mix of untreated wastewater and stormwater may be diverted directly to our waterways. We supply an online waterbody advisory application to see how rainfall has impacted NYC waterways.
The municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) is part of the City’s Sewer System that collects stormwater runoff that then drains into our waterways. As stormwater flows over streets and other impervious surfaces (like sidewalks and rooftops), it sweeps up pollutants such as oils, chemicals, pathogens, sediments, and litter. These pollutants can harm fish and other wildlife. By keeping our streets and catch basins clean, we can protect harbor water quality and marine ecosystems.
Plastics are one of the biggest polluters of the ocean and can take many forms: plastics that we use every day at home and school (lunch bags, Styrofoam cups, bottles, and balloons), plastic from industrial products, as well as lost or discarded fishing gear. Once these plastics find their way into our ocean, they negatively impact marine life. For example, loggerhead sea turtles and ocean sunfish mistake plastic bags for their favorite food, jellies (commonly known as jellyfish). Smaller microplastics, including those found in household products, like some kinds of toothpaste and face wash, also make their way into the ocean because they are too small to be filtered out by our wastewater treatment system. Once in our waterways, they are eaten by different kinds of fish, and ultimately can end up on our own dinner plates!
New York Harbor is making a comeback and the signs are all around. According to our most recent Harbor Survey Report, the Harbor is cleaner now than at any time in more than 100 years. Continued improvements to sewage handling and treatment are chiefly responsible for continued improvements to water quality, which have led to increased recreational opportunities such as swimming and fishing. We operate 14 wastewater resource recovery facilities that together treat around 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater each day, and the agency also employs a fleet of boats that are used to monitor the waters and the shoreline for water quality and sources of pollution. Thanks to cleaner waters and an abundance of food, more whales, dolphins, and other large aquatic species have returned to New York Harbor in recent years!
You bet there are! In fact, New York’s ocean waters are home to 26 different species of shark, from the relatively small spiny dogfish all the way up to the basking shark, the 2nd largest fish in the world! And that’s not all. Our local waters are also home to 14 species of skates and rays, which are close cousins of sharks but flat. You can even find skate egg cases—sometimes called “mermaid purses”—on beaches right here in New York City!
Yes! New York’s waters never cease to amaze with all the species found in and around them. When people think of corals, they usually think of bright coral reefs found in clear, shallow tropical waters. However, there are many kinds of corals found at different latitudes across the globe. Here in New York, we have cold-water corals that live at deep ocean depths. Unlike their tropical relatives, deep-sea corals do not require sunlight and do not possess the small, photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae that provide them with food. Instead, deep-sea corals are solely suspension feeders, filtering out small phytoplankton from the water column around them.
A catadromous fish lives in fresh water for the majority of its life and then travels to salt water to spawn. An important catadromous fish species in New York is the American eel, Anguilla rostrata. These eels migrate over a thousand miles from New York out to the Sargasso Sea, an area within the Atlantic Ocean, when it is their time to spawn. In order to make the long journey, their bodies undergo amazing transformations that turn them from bottom, mud-dwelling species to elite long-distance ocean swimmers. Their entire digestive tract breaks down because they do not eat on their long journey; their eyes double in size to better see in deep water; and their swim bladders undergo changes to allow for better buoyancy. Although a popular food and bait source for humans, much of the life history of the American eel still remains a mystery.
Currently, the American eel is listed as “Endangered” under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with the population facing multiple threats. Some of the most notable threats include barriers to migration, habitat degradation and over-fishing. Over time, many of the streams and rivers that eels navigate have been blocked by dams and other forms of development along the waterways. This blockage has inhibited the American eels from reaching their historic habitats. The habitats that are left are becoming more degraded as pollution and development occur. Additionally, the over-harvesting of glass eels (the early life stage of the eel) for human consumption has caused a decline in population. Although the vast majority of harvesting occurred decades ago, the population effects are long lasting due to the eel’s slow rate of maturation.
The Hudson Canyon is a deep-sea canyon located 100 miles off the coast of New York. The canyon is the largest off the U.S. Atlantic Coast and one of the largest submarine canyons in the world. The canyon is especially important because it supports a vast number of marine species. From migratory species like whales and sharks that pass above the canyon, to fish and crustaceans that live within it, the Hudson Canyon is a hotspot for biodiversity.
Long Island Sound is one of the five important estuaries in New York. Estuaries are called “nurseries of the sea” because so many marine animals are born and spend the early part of their lives there. This is because the mixing of freshwater, from rivers, and saltwater, from the ocean, brings lots of nutrients and food to this habitat. Long Island Sound is home to more than 1,200 species of invertebrates, 170 species of fish, and dozens of species of migratory and resident birds. Additionally, many people live or spend time in the watersheds of Long Island Sound. The Sound is used by ferries, ships, and barges to transport people and goods into deep water harbors. People also harvest oysters, crabs, and lobsters from its waters and fish such as bluefish, striped bass, winter flounder, and more! We can be proud of this “Estuary of National Significance” and celebrate by visiting its shores and doing all we can to keep it healthy.
Water Stewardship and Climate Change—What can we do to help?
We can conserve water on a daily basis in many simple ways.
Green roofs consist of a vegetative layer that grows in a specially designed soil, which sits on top of a drainage layer. Green roofs are more costly than conventional roofs, but they are capable of absorbing and retaining large amounts of stormwater. In addition, green roofs provide sustainability benefits such as absorbing air and noise pollution, rooftop cooling by reducing UV radiation absorption, creating living environments for birds, and increasing the quality-of-life for residents.
Blue roofs are non-vegetated source controls that detain stormwater. Weirs at the roof drain inlets and along the roof can create temporary ponding and gradual release of stormwater. Blue roofs are less costly than green roofs. Coupled with light colored roofing material they can provide sustainability benefits through rooftop cooling.
Water and energy consumption are interdependent—the more water we use, the more energy we need, and vice versa. Approximately four percent of the nation’s electricity is used just for moving and treating drinking water and wastewater. Conversely, it takes 3,000 to 6,000 gallons of water annually to power just one 60-watt incandescent bulb for 12 hours per day. While New York City’s Water Supply System was engineered to rely heavily on the force of gravity to carry drinking water over 100 miles from watersheds to the city, NYC’s sewer pipes and wastewater treatment system require more than gravity alone to transport and treat used water. Due to the immense energy exerted to transport and treat wastewater, our 14 wastewater resource recovery facilities and 96 pumping stations throughout the city contribute to one of the largest municipal energy uses. It is important to be aware of your water and energy consumption and the link between them. Conserving energy conserves water and conserving water conserves energy.
It’s important to remember that we all live within a watershed, and any activities that happen on land can directly and indirectly impact the health of nearby waterways. We can protect our upstate watersheds by learning about their history, how they work and where they are located and then educating our peers about New York City’s water supply system. We can also conserve water every day and be sure not to waste our shared water resources.
We can help keep harbor water clean by helping to keep our streets and storm drains pollutant-free. Simple everyday changes can make a big difference.
Here are some ways we can help:
If not properly handled, certain products can clog our sewer system or end up in local waterways and harm our environment. Cooking grease poured down the drain clogs pipes in your home and city sewers. Clogged sewer lines cause sewage backups into your home and neighborhood, and can also cause sewage to be released into city waterways, harming water quality and the environment.
In order to prevent grease clogs:
Wet wipes, paper towels and other household products that you flush down your toilet enter our sewer system and mix with the grease that you have poured down your sink. This mix of personal hygiene products and grease can create “fatbergs” in our sewers. Remember to only flush the 4 Ps down the drain (pee, poop, puke, and (toilet) paper!
Fire hydrants are used for fire prevention. They allow fire fighters to access water in order to stop fires.
Opening fire hydrants without spray caps is wasteful and dangerous. Illegally opened hydrants can lower water pressure, which can cause problems at hospitals and other medical facilities and hinder firefighting by reducing the flow of water to hoses and pumps. Children can also be at serious risk, because the powerful force of an open hydrant without a sprinkler cap can push them into oncoming traffic.
Hydrants can be opened legally if equipped with a City-approved spray cap. One illegally opened hydrant wastes up to 1,000 gallons of water per minute, while a hydrant with a spray cap only puts out around 25 gallons per minute. Visit your local firehouse to have a spray cap installed.
Climate change is the rise of average temperature around the world. In New York City, mean annual temperature has increased 4.4°F from 1900 to 2011. Rising global temperatures have also been accompanied by other changes in weather and climate. Many places are now experiencing changes in rainfall resulting in more intense rain and droughts, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves. The planet’s oceans and glaciers have also experienced changes: oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising. All of these changes are evidence that our world is getting warmer, and climates are changing. Over the last century, NYC has seen an average annual precipitation increase of 7.7 inches and a rise in sea level of 1.1 feet. Coastal storms like Hurricane Sandy are not the only threats New York City faces. Other “extreme” events such as heavy rains, heat waves, droughts, and high winds also leave the city more vulnerable. Chronic conditions, such as rising sea levels, higher average temperatures, and increased annual precipitation have direct impacts on New York City and can make the effects of extreme events worse.
Naturally occurring greenhouse gases (GHGs), such as water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), play a critical role in determining the Earth’s temperature. Thermal energy from the sun passes through the atmosphere towards the surface of the Earth; most of it is absorbed and then heats the Earth. The Earth’s surface then emits heat in the form of infrared radiation back to the atmosphere, some of which is lost to space and some of which remains in the atmosphere. The GHGs naturally occurring in the atmosphere redirect some of this infrared radiation back to the Earth, which has an additional warming effect and helps maintain the planet’s habitability. However, with an increase in GHG emissions like carbon dioxide and methane, more of the reflected energy is absorbed and redirected toward Earth, dramatically increasing Earth’s temperature. This process is commonly known as the “greenhouse effect.”
The Earth does go through natural cycles of warming and cooling, caused by factors such as changes in the sun or volcanic activity. However, the warming we have seen in the past 50 years cannot be explained by natural factors alone. It is human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels and land use changes that have produced unprecedented quantities of heat-trapping GHGs, which are contributing to climate change. Most worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are from energy use for electricity, heating, and transportation. Such everyday activities as turning on the lights, running the faucet, and traveling to school, not only use energy, but also contribute to the need for the mass burning of fossil fuels needed for power plants, large scale buildings and construction, motor vehicles and mass transit, and wastewater treatment.
As climate change warms the atmosphere and alters the hydrological cycle, we will continue to witness changes to the amount, timing, form, and intensity of precipitation and the flow of water in watersheds. We will also see changes in the quality of aquatic and marine environments. These changes are also likely to affect the practices designed to protect the quality of water resources and public health.
In NYC, increased precipitation events are a major impact of climate change. Increased intensity and frequency of rainfall can result in flooding and Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) events, which will release a greater amount of untreated wastewater directly into our local waterways. The change in precipitation patterns will affect the flow of water within the watersheds, altering and limiting the amount and quality of water we have access to. A changing climate will also impact the complex web of life, functionality, and productivity within forests; such invaluable forest habitats make up 75% of NYC’s watersheds and play an important role in protecting the quality of water. Also, as temperatures rise, farms and fisheries will likely face increasing problems with productivity, potentially damaging livelihoods and the regional economy.
Whether climate change is increasing or decreasing rainfall in your area, the most important thing you can do is to start or continue to conserve water and energy. Using less water alleviates the pressure that a drought places on the water supply as well as alleviating the pressure on wastewater resource recovery facilities. Also, by conserving water when it rains, we can help reduce flow in sewers and decrease the amount of untreated water entering our waterways through Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) events.
Concepts of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) are present at DEP in both careers and projects. Engineers and scientists are crucial to providing clean and safe water. Scientists are responsible for studying water quality and researching new techniques that will improve NYC’s Water Supply System and local waterways. Engineers are responsible for taking that information and developing it into tangible solutions for the city’s infrastructure. In order to adapt to a changing climate, our scientists and engineers have been working on new ways to protect our water supply and become more resilient by implementing sustainable practices in our watershed and at wastewater resource recovery facilities. Planners and engineers are designing ways to reduce the amount of water we use every day. Engineers are working to repair a large leak in the Delaware Aqueduct. Low-flush toilets in public schools, more efficient shower heads in parks, and an improved leak detection program are additional examples. Engineered green infrastructure contributes to managing stormwater, reducing Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) events, and mitigating the effects of increased precipitation events caused by climate change, which will aid in protecting our local waterways.