There’s nothing like New York City tap water — often referred to as “the champagne of tap water” and mythically credited as the source of our nonpareil bagels. The Big Apple’s hydration supply has long been known for its clear, clean taste with minimal need for filtration — though, as some killjoy detractors have pointed out, we’re only 13th on the EWG’s water rankings.
But regardless of whether you think our water supply should be number 1 or not — if you’ve ever wondered where New York’s water comes from, here’s a hint: it’s not being sourced from the Hudson River or East River…and it’s absolutely not coming from the Gowanus Canal.
Instead, like much of our farm-to-table meat, produce, and handcrafted IPAs, New York City tap water comes from upstate. According to the NYC.GOV website, “Each day, more than 1 billion gallons of fresh, clean water is delivered from large upstate reservoirs — some more than 125 miles from the City — to the taps of nine million customers throughout New York state.”
The two main sources of the city’s water are the Delaware and Croton aqueducts. Feeding from Catskill mountain streams and reservoirs, fresh water is frequently tested through floating robotic DEP sensors for harmful pathogens. Once cleared, water is moved through the upstate aqueducts and disinfected further through chlorine and UV light technology in Westchester County before it is separated into numerous NYC-specific distribution tunnels.
If you’ve ever been tempted to take a shortcut by opening up an NYC fire hydrant for a sip, we suggest you hold off. While hydrants receive the same supply of water from upstate aqueducts, they are not regularly flushed out, and rust and sediments from the structures do not meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Act. Public works advocates have, however, proposed the idea of refitting hydrants with flushing fountains to increase public drinking water access throughout the 118,000 hydrants around town.
Prior to the creation of the distribution tunnels, water was collected in a massive, 50-foot tall reservoir right here in Midtown, on the current site of the New York Public Library at W42nd and 5th Avenue. Built in 1842, the 20 million gallon reservoir was torn down in 1900 to make way for the flagship branch’s construction, though remnants of it remain in the South Court of the Schwarzman Building. Additionally, a nearby bar at W40th Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway, aptly named the Croton Reservoir Tavern, pays homage to the structure with water and beer!
Currently operating NYC Water Tunnels 1 and 2 were respectively built in 1917 and 1935, and are in significant need of repair — leading to a massive, $6 billion-dollar project to create a new water tunnel (as you might guess, to be named Water Tunnel 3). The construction, which was initially authorized in 1954 and began work in 1970, is still ongoing and not expected to be complete until 2026.
The project (much like New York’s other never-ending venture, the Second Avenue Subway), has suffered its own series of blows, including funding shortages, the waxing and waning interests of various mayors, and as many as 24 construction-related deaths for its hard-working “sandhogs” in its earliest years. Said then mayor Bloomberg of the enterprise to the New York Times in 2013, “It’s not sexy. And no one says thank you. I still want to be the mayor when this is finished, so I can dedicate it.” While that is no longer looking likely, perhaps Mayor Adams will get the chance.
If all of this sounds close to home, you’re correct — part of the newly created Tunnel 3 runs down the West Side and is currently being refitted with miles of new water main connections from 9th Avenue, leading to the recent takedown of Hell’s Kitchen’s most-controversial structure, the outdoor dining shed.
Strolling by the big dig on 9th, you may not see much, but there’s even more to behold far below New York’s sidewalks. While water mains are generally buried about 4 feet below the city’s concrete jungle, at around the same depth, some New York neighborhoods contain the vestiges of the citys now-defunct pneumatic mail tunnels. Originally built in 1897, the 27-mile route connected intra-city mail between 23 post offices and was operational until 1953.
Other unique underground treasures include asbestos covered heating pipes buried at 6 feet, an unexplained hidden room filled with mirrors (!!!) buried 8 feet below the intersection of Bowery and Canal, tunnels used by the late Al Capone to transport illegal booze during Prohibition 20 feet under Chinatown, and the 1 train stop at 190th Street, buried 180 feet beneath the sidewalk. Furthest below the surface are the water tunnels 1, 2, and 3 themselves — each 600-800 feet underground.
And if all of this sounds more crowded than the A train at rush hour, it is. Fascinatingly, there is no one consolidated map demonstrating where all of the city’s electrical wiring, gas pipes, and water mains are located, leading to a yearly cost of $300 million in citywide construction mishaps. While our taxes may be high🥴, at least we can take solace in the fact that our tap water is free and tasty…