Most New Yorkers go about their days using water to bathe, make coffee, wash their hands or flush the toilet without much thought to where it originates.
But behind each drop of water is a journey that can begin up to 125 miles away in upstate New York.
Along the way, it gets disinfected by ultraviolet light, treated with chlorine, fluoridated and tested for purity. It travels through mountains and deep valleys and, once in the city, flows underground in tunnels and into distribution chambers. A billion gallons of water are delivered -- and consumed -- each day, with gravity alone being sufficient to push it into buildings at least six stories high.
To learn more about how the city gets its drinking water, amNewYork turned to the folks at the Department of Environmental Protection, the agency that regulates the vast water supply.
"So many New Yorkers take the amazing system that we have for granted," said Jim Roberts, a DEP deputy commissioner. "It is to a large extent out of sight and out of mind."
Watersheds, reservoirs and lakes
Before it goes anywhere, the city’s drinking water starts out in three major watersheds — the Delaware and Catskill systems east of the Hudson River and the Croton system just north of the city. Right now, only water from the Catskills/Delaware systems is being supplied to New York City while a new facility to treat water from the Croton system is built.
The watersheds feed more than a dozen reservoirs and controlled lakes. The largest reservoir, the Pepacton, has a capacity of over 140 billion gallons. The Ashokan in Ulster County, pictured above, has a capacity of 123 billion gallons.
Officials take measurements throughout the reservoirs, looking at things like turbidity (water clarity) and contaminants, to select the highest quality water available at that moment to be released downstate.(Credit: NYC DEP)
A well protected water source
The water supply is so critical to the city that a dedicated police force with over 200 members works to prevent illegal dumping and other misuses of the waterways. During Hurricane Irene, the DEP police were even called on to do water rescues. (Credit: NYC DEP)
Miles of aqueducts
Next, the water flows from the reservoirs and lakes through a system of aqueducts and tunnels. These include the 100-year-old Catskill Aqueduct, which extends 92 miles from the Ashokan Reservoir in the Catskill Mountains to the northern boundary of the city, and relies solely on gravity to carry the water. When it was completed in the early 1900s, the Catskill Aqueduct was considered by some as an engineering feat on the level of the Panama or Suez canals!
The 85-mile Delaware Aqueduct to its southwest is much newer, having been completed in the mid-1940s. The Delaware is so large that a two-man submarine has been used to inspect it for leaks. There are other aqueducts and tunnels, too. They all give the system a cascading effect, letting the water flow downstate.(Credit: NYC DEP)
Disinfecting the water
After traveling southeast through the Catskill and Delaware aqueducts, water arrives at the Kensico Reservoir about three miles north of White Plains in Westchester County. The reservoir is an important balancing reservoir for the daily demands of the city. Up until this point, the water has also been unfiltered and untreated. But now it gets treated with fluoride — to prevent tooth decay! — and disinfected at what is considered the world’s largest ultraviolet treatment facility, as seen above. The UV treatment is especially useful for zapping Cryptosporidium and Giardia, which are not the names of punk bands but potentially harmful microorganisms. (Credit: NYC DEP)
A stop in Yonkers
The water makes another stop on its southerly voyage to the city: Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers. The DEP says the reservoir serves three critical functions. First, it balances daily demand (water consumption peaks twice during the day, in the morning and at night when people are home); second, water undergoes additional disinfection. And, third, the reservoir serves to elevate the water so that when it does continue on, the force of gravity propels it with enough force to flow into homes. (Credit: NYC DEP)
Into the city’s tunnels and mains
From the aqueducts, water is distributed throughout the city via three tunnels — No. 1, which was put into service in 1917; No. 2, in service since 1936; and No. 3 (pictured), which has been under construction since 1970 at a cost of about $5 billion. Water then gets routed to distribution mains and then … (Credit: DEP)
Finally, the water arrives in your home. If your building is less than six stories high, gravity does all the work. If not, then pumps in your building will help to move the water to the top floors. To maintain quality, testing is done at 1,000 sampling stations around the city. How good is the water that comes out of your faucet? Here's one way to look at it: The city is only one of five big municipalities that is allowed by the federal government to supply unfiltered water. (Credit: Flickr/Carol VanHook)