NYC Water Tunnel No. 3

NYC Water Tunnel No. 3: Issues & Focus
By Piyawut Koomsiripithuck, Shih Liao, Gwendolyn Stegall, and Mayrah Udvardi

Among the most expensive and nontransparent, but also extensive and necessary infrastructure projects in New York City’s history is Water Tunnel No. 3. Since this four-phase, $6 billion-and-counting project began in 1970, it has been mired in controversy and stymied by contract disputes, union strikes, and budget cuts. The environmental and social implications of the tunnel’s incompleteness has been partially reported, but large gaps in publicly-accessible information exist. This brief literature review hones in on three topics of particular importance to our team: the role of labor unions in the project, environmental concerns (both local and regional), and public opinion and knowledge about the project.

The literature on the intersections between Water Tunnel No. 3 construction and labor unions is robust, in large part because unions have sought press coverage to advance their stake in the project. Sandhogs, or tunnel diggers, have been integral to New York City’s water infrastructure since the construction of the Catskill dams and aqueducts at the turn of the twentieth century. According to David Grann’s “City of Water,” unforgiving work coupled with high rates of injuries and casualties led to the establishment of Local 147, the New York sandhog union. Local 147 members have a legal monopoly on the tunnel digging industry and are hired through subcontractors in municipal contracts like the Water Tunnel No. 3. Since construction of the tunnel began in 1970, the union has been on strike twice, both times to boycott the unsafe working conditions that have led to 24 deaths and 800 reported injuries. Yet, the reporting over the past 48 years tends to blame larger contract disputes and politician’s disengagement with the project for its long delays. Paul Delaney writes in his book Sandhogs: A History of the Tunnel Workers of New York, that the longest stall in the project in 1975 happened because the City sued the contractor for over-specifying steel support. Realizing these stalls strip them of their job security, Local 147 members have taken to the press several times to ignite a sense of public urgency for the project’s continuation. Reporters like 99% Invisible host Roman Mars and NYT labor correspondent Steven Greenhouse have always found eager interviewees amongst the sandhogs.

Public Opinion and Knowledge:
In stark contrast to the sandhogs’ interest in the project, it seems most New Yorkers do not even know the first thing about how water gets to their faucets, let alone details about the Water Tunnel No. 3 project. There a few notable exceptions – places where the water tunnel surfaces make people associated with those sites (landowners, community boards etc.) rather nervous. The tunnel has also been featured in a few popular movies and TV shows, such as the 1995 film Die Hard with a Vengeance, CSI:NY, and NOVA. ( It is interesting that there is still such a lack of knowledge on this topic, despite these appearances, numerous newspaper articles on the topic since its inception in the 1970’s, and years of politics around the subject at both the state and local level. This project has seemed extremely important to many political players - it has been a topic of debate between many mayors and governors and a key infrastructure project in at least the last mayor’s city plan, if not the current mayor’s. However, it seems the publics these politicians serve as a whole are not aware of the importance of the project. In addition to researching the few times this topic is discussed by a wider public who are not directly involved in constructing the tunnel, we are also interested in understanding why this is not a more publicly known project. Detailed information about the project (clear drawings of the route, where the tunnel emerges, statistics on the impact of the tunnel or the need for it etc.) are hard to find; if there is some reason why this information is purposefully not being disseminated, we would like to know.

Environment (Local & Regional):
New York start building water supply system from 1626, with the development of technology and management for water resources, water infrastructure like dam and reservoir were introduced for the increasing population and urban usage. Since then, we generally see water supply as a unlimited resource that the city can efficiently feed to 9 millions residents by the three main watersheds outside the city, Upstate New York. In contrast, New York State has been facing drought for many decades, numbers of citizens and farmers who originally owned those water resource are struggling in water accessibility. In 1966, New York County was recorded its fifth severe drought in the last seven years. In 2002, 11 percent of New York state is in a severe drought, and another 78 percent is either abnormally dry or in a moderate drought. And again in 2016, parts of Hudson Valley were recorded as D-3 Extreme Drought area as an part of tri-state drought.

However, in order to develop these water infrastructures, there were large displacements within Catskills/Delaware watershed and Croton watershed. Forests, villages and little towns were gone due to the water infrastructure development. For example, in the case of Catskill-Delaware Ultraviolet Water Treatment facility which came online in 2013, was built on the 66 acres of upland forest, shrubland, floodplain wetland, that contributed to the removal of more than 2,000 trees. Besides, Croton watershed just finished its water treatment plant, in comparison to Catskills/Delaware watershed, NYC Department of Environmental Protection(DEP) is still searching to expand its protection zone to maintain water quality which create a tension between local and DEP. In Catskills/Delaware’s case, the reason why they are trying to buy lands to protect the watershed from local development is to avoid building another costly water treatment plant.

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Damico, Esther. “Entrenched NYC Crews Build Watering Holes.”
“DEP Completes Key Milestone for City Water Tunnel No. 3.” States News Service. May 8, 2010.
Derrick, Peter. Tunneling to the future: the story of the great subway expansion that saved New York. NYU Press, 2001.
Dwyer, Jim. “Mayor Adding $305 Million to Speed Work on Critical Water Tunnel.” The New York Times. April 7, 2016.
Flegenheimer, Matt. “After Decades, a Water Tunnel Can Now Serve All of Manhattan.” The New York Times. Oct. 16, 2013.
Fritsch, Jane. “16-Ton Hoist Falls on Workers in a Queens Shaft.” The New York Times. Nov. 25, 1993. Web.
Gearty, Robert. “6 Years for Living High on the Hog.” New York Daily News. June 21, 2012. Web.
Grace, Matthew. “Upper East Side Gets Shaft --33B, To Be Precise.” New York Observer. Jan 9, 2006.
Grann, David. “City of Water.” The New Yorker, Sept. 1, 2003.
Greenhouse, Steven. “Strike Halts City’s Biggest Construction Jobs.” The New York Times. July 2, 2006.
Holland, Beth. “Hell-for-Leather Dig.” Newsday. Nov. 25, 1993.
Kaplan, Fred. “New York opens first segment of 3rd water tunnel; 60-mile, $ 6 billion project will be done in about 20 years.” The Baltimore Sun. Aug. 21, 1998.
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Mars, Roman. “Episode 158: Sandhogs.” 99% Invisible. March 31, 2015. Podcast.
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NYS Laborers Union. Accessed Feb. 7, 2018.
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NYC Government “Water Matters”, 2011.
Wisnieski, Adam “City’s watershed protection plan seeks difficault upstate”, 2015
Andrew C. Revkin. "Extended Drought Strains Resources Along East Coast. The New York Times. Apr. 21, 2002
Blaine Friedlander. Survey Details Impact of 2016 Drought on New York Farming. Apr. 6,2016

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