NYC Water Tunnel No. 3: The Pitch

By Piyawut Koomsiripithuck, Shih Liao, Gwendolyn Stegall, and Mayrah Udvardi

Part 1:Interviews
Last week, we interviewed a spokesperson for the Laborers' Local Union No. 147, a member of Manhattan Community Board 6, and an engineer with Sherwood Design Engineers. This week, Piyawut and Shih Hao went down to Cooper Union to visit the archives and speak with a professor, an experience that they will report more on in their individual site visits. Gwendolyn toured the 59th St shaft site and Mayrah explored the Bulova Corporate Center area in Jackson Heights where the next valve chamber will be sited. Mayrah will be conducting and interview with someone at NYC Emergency Management on Thursday morning followed by an interview with someone from the DEP on Friday. More on that in our next post.

Part 2: The Pitch
Where does our water come from? Most New Yorker’s answer this question with “somewhere upstate” and don’t think much beyond that. In fact, the system that brings drinking water to the five boroughs involves two water tunnels that are almost 100 years old, and one that has been under construction since the 1970’s and is still growing. Water Tunnel No. 3 is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in history, but unlike the Brooklyn Bridge or Holland Tunnel, almost no one knows about it. Our story follows the development of this tunnel and the few instances where more than just the people building the tunnel are aware of its existence, or, in true New York fashion, complain about it.

Since 1970 when construction on the tunnel began, public encounters with the project have been reactionary to sandhog — tunnel digger — deaths and surface disruptions. Whenever the project comes to the surface, at a water filtration site or at one of the dozens of shafts along the tunnel, for example, there is potential for disruption in the local community. The Department of Environmental Protection, the city agency that oversees the construction of Water Tunnel No. 3, has a long history of utilitarian development; relocating thousands of people upstate, for example, when the initial network of reservoirs and aqueducts for New York City’s water was constructed. With more visibility now than ever before, the DEP has become especially careful to pick the least impactful sites and do community outreach wherever disruption is necessary. Nevertheless, controversy has popped up in a few spots, including a site near the Bulova Corporation Headquarters in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood with a history of being a dumping ground for the City.

Besides these few moments of visibility, the tunnel’s visibility is in large part intentionally obfuscated for security reasons. Jason Loiselle from Sherwood Design Engineers explained to us that the City fears “terrorist threats” on the tunnel that would create “a major public health emergency.” But it also seems that most New Yorkers don’t have to think about where their water comes from — they don’t pay for it, it is never contaminated or in short supply — so it isn’t an issue that is even on their radar. However, it is an absolutely essential project to ensure safe, uncontaminated, fresh water is equally distributed throughout the city. As we continue our investigation, we will investigate where the water tunnel actually is and map its impact on individual neighborhoods where it surfaces, as well as the city as a whole. Perhaps if the project were more publicized and the heroic digging that the sandhogs do everyday were celebrated in the same way it is for projects like the Brooklyn Bridge, Water Tunnel No. 3 could have a wider educational impact. Maybe then, water security could be considered within a larger narrative of environmental justice in New York City.

Part 3: Map
We chose to create a cognitive map of the the tunnel to depict how it has changed shape in people's minds as a result of reporting over time. Inspired by J.H. Colton's world rivers map, we treat each version of the tunnel as an artefact, shaped by particularly important years (with high deaths, protests, or construction progress).

This draws from research into "points known" from our archive of maps, special reports, and newspaper articles:

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