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18th April
2003

First Published in The New York Sun, April 18, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

The war in Iraq, specifically the crisis in a city such as Basra, reminds us of the most important reason any community lives or dies — the supply of safe water. The importance of water was a fact of life for New Yorkers of an earlier era, but it has been forgotten by today’s generation of Not-In-My-Back-Yard politicos, who have hamstrung the construction of a federally mandated filtration plant for more than a decade.
The saga of New York’s water problems was brilliantly chronicled by Gerard Koeppel, in his book, “Water for Gotham: A History.”The Perrier of New York’s early days was the Tea Water Pump, located under what is today
the Brooklyn Bridge. Rich New Yorkers could buy clean water pumped from an underwater spring located there. But that did little to insure the health and safety of the average Gotham resident.

By 1832, things were so bad that 3,500 people, about 15% of the city’s population, perished in an outbreak of cholera. It often takes such a disaster to focus the public’s attention on the task at hand.

Improving the water supply became the Second Avenue Subway of its time: A parade of plans came and went, and money was squandered — even stolen. One plan to pump water from the Bronx River involved the notorious Aaron Burr. When the dust cleared, much of the money that had been raised was diverted into another Burr enterprise, a bank that later merged and evolved into today’s Chase Bank.

A visionary City Council member named Myndert Van Schaick ultimately took control of the situation. He recognized that for a great growing city, the Bronx River was not enough. So he instead looked upstate — way upstate — at a time when the only means of land travel was horsedrawn vehicles. A 40-mile aqueduct from the Croton River was constructed in record time, powered not by pumps but by something far more reliable: gravity.The project was the engineering wonder of its time and allowed New York to become America’s great city.

If only Van Schaick were around today. New York’s late senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was fond of saying that in the past public acclaim came to those who built things, but today such acclaim too often goes to those who prevent things from being built. This ethic is what has prevented a new filtration plant from being built that would maintain the quality of the water that Van Schaick brought to us in the 1830s.
The Environmental Protection Agency has insisted that the City of New York, alone among big cities in not filtering its water supply, build a plant to ensure the future quality of the Croton water.

The first site discussed was on top of the Jerome Park Reservoir. Building at this site would have destroyed the thriving middle-class community surrounding the reservoir, so the enormous opposition to that plan came as no surprise.The community was saved in 1999 when Mayor Giuliani and the City Council chose to build the massive project under the Mosholu Golf Course in Van Cortlandt Park.

Unfortunately, the politicians of the northwest Bronx lacked the sense to declare victory. Led by Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, they continued to fight the plant on the grounds that locating it in the park without legislative approval was a violation of state law. Mr. Dinowitz, as the assemblyman who represents the park area, invoked a legislative courtesy that gives members veto powers over projects in their own districts.A Court of Appeals decision a year and a half ago affirmed the position that legislative approval was needed to “alienate” parkland, bringing the city back to square one.

With few realistic alternatives remaining, a plan to locate the plant at Fordham Landing, along the banks of the Harlem River, near Fordham Hill, was developed. Unfortunately, this is a potentially disastrous plan, on par with the original proposal. The area along the river presents the borough with real economic development opportunities; at a time when the Bronx economy desperately needs a shot in the arm, the city can ill afford to squander a site with so much potential.

Mr. Dinowitz now favors a plan that would bypass the Bronx and shift the burden north, to Westchester, at what could turn out to be twice the construction cost. There are a raft of reasons why this is folly.

First, filtration farther north will not protect city residents from pollutants that may seep into the many miles of ancient aqueducts between the plant and the city. Second, building the plant in Westchester will cost workers in New York City hundreds of construction jobs. Finally, building a plant in Westchester will ensure that millions of dollars in city tax money will be shipped north every year — a sort of reverse commuter tax.

With the connivance of the Bloomberg administration, Assemblyman Jose Rivera, who is the Bronx County Democratic leader, may convince the Legislature to reconsider the golf-course plan that Mr. Dinowitz killed. As a sweetener, the Bronx could get a couple of hundred million dollars of park improvements. This sounds like a great deal to me.

With luck, Mr. Rivera could become the Myndert Van Schaick of his day.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

 

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