Manhattan portion of Water Tunnel 3 finally open

City officials stand at an underground water distribution site 300 feet above parts of the new Water Tunnel 3 in Manhattan. Credit: Spencer T. Tucker/Office of the Mayor
City officials stand at an underground water distribution site 300 feet above parts of the new Water Tunnel 3 in Manhattan.
Credit: Spencer T. Tucker/Office of the Mayor

Early yesterday evening, when New Yorkers turned on their taps in Lower Manhattan, an undetectable change nearly six decades in the making occurred.

Manhattan drinking water, once running through a single 96-year-old tunnel, now partially flows through a new water tunnel and one of the largest infrastructure projects in city history.

Completed yesterday, the Manhattan portion of Water Tunnel 3 is able to transport some 350 million gallons through the borough every day and ensures a critical backup to the city’s three-tube system.

“When I came into office, I asked, what could literally close down this city? A water tunnel failure could really have done that,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, his voice echoing in a cavernous water distribution site some 200 feet below Central Park.

On Dec. 2, 1989, this very nearly happened. A hours-long tunnel failure near street level had officials contemplating a shut-down of water flow from upstate New York’s Hillview Reservoir, which would have left chunks of the city without drinking water.

“If we were to lose one of the water tunnels without backup, parts of the city would be uninhabitable,” the mayor said.

Due to financial ups and downs after construction began in 1970, progress on the project has fluctuated since it was first envisioned by city planners in 1954.

The entire tunnel has cost $4.7 billion so far, $2.7 billion during the Bloomberg administration alone.

“From the outset we said that we would not repeat the mistakes of the 1970s, when the city failed to make vital infrastructure investments,” Bloomberg said.

Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway said the project was a testament to the “absolute necessity of long-term planning.”

“It’s entirely consistent with the bold leaders in the city’s history who planned for growth,” Holloway said.

Some 5,000 workers over three generations excavated more than 82 million cubic feet of soil and rock — enough to fill Madison Square Garden more than 200 times — to construct the tunnel so far.

The last pieces of the tunnel will run through parts of Brooklyn and Queens. When those sections are completed in the next few years, the city will be able to inspect and conduct maintenance on Water Tunnel 1 for the first time.

“It’s not sexy, and nobody says thank you, but we should all be sleeping better because of this,” Bloomberg said.

Follow Anna Sanders on Twitter: @AnnaESanders


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