Where does our water come from? Is it safe to drink? How will climate change and privatization impact our access to water in the future? These are not questions New Yorkers, who enjoy some of the best free drinking water in the world, think about on the day-to-day. But asking these questions as a public is critical to the maintenance and resilience of our water system. 500 ft below New York City’s sidewalks, 25 ft diameter pipes transport 1.3 billion gallons of water per day to the city’s five boroughs. In 1970, the City recognized the folly of resting eight million people’s water security on two aging tunnels. Water Tunnel No. 3 was born in an effort to create resilience in a highly centralized water distribution system. The tunnel is the longest-running infrastructural project in the City’s history (totaling $5 billion in cost thus far) and has witnessed major fatalities, protests, and political stalls. Through this narrative, we hope to show how Water Tunnel No. 3 came to be, the barriers hindering its completion, and the need to rethink our engagement with the City’s water more broadly to ensure access to safe drinking water in the future.
Water Tunnel No. 3 is a system that, for security and proprietary reasons, has no dataset. Our analysis pieces together points of data based on vague maps, articles, exposes, and interviews to visualize the tunnel. This story has many actors, all of whom play critical roles in the construction of the tunnel: the City, which includes the Department of Environmental Protection (the contracting agent), City Hall, and Office of Emergency Management; the Expert, which we define as scholars and engineers who consult for this project; the Laborer, mainly tunnel diggers in the Sandhogs Union, and Citizens. Shafts sites along the water tunnel became literal points on an otherwise obscure map. But even these, as we describe, are highly politicized and often difficult to find.