The longest tunnel in the world, the Delaware Aqueduct, supplies New York City with drinking water — and it’s leaking. Every 10 minutes or so, the aqueduct will leak at least enough to put a football field under three and a half feet of water. Blueprint America — with Weekend America on public radio — correspondent Rick Karr takes a look at the catastrophe that’s unfolding several hundred feet underground.
If you visit Laura Smith’s house on Smith Road in Wawarsing, N.Y. on a crisp, autumn morning, you might think she has it pretty good. The house is cozy, and the setting is gorgeous: Catskill hillsides blazing with fall color, her lawn still green and thick. But then, she opens the garage door that leads to the lower level of her house and you’re nearly bowled over by the ammonia stench of mold and mildew. She steps inside and shows off her nine-horsepower water pump.
“When we know we’re flooding, we get it set up, make sure we have fuel, we get the hoses out,” she explains. Outside, the hose is about 30 feet long and four inches wide. Smith calls it “the Loch Ness Monster.”
All it takes is a few inches of rain, Smith says, and her basement and garage are suddenly full of feet of water. The pump can run for weeks before the basement’s dry. Her water problem got really bad during a storm in the spring of 2005: Flooding knocked out the furnace, so she and her family relied on a wood stove, up on blocks, in the basement. And they worried that the foundation might collapse.
“Sometimes I think maybe it would’ve been best for my house to collapse at that time,” she says, “so I could’ve saved myself the past three years of horror.”
Smith laughs at this. She says she laughs because that’s the only way she can handle the situation. The water is relentless. On the morning that I visited, there hadn’t been significant rain in Wawarsing for days, yet Smith’s basement walls were damp. She and her husband watch the Weather Channel with dread. The neighborhood’s lawns are pocked with sinkholes. They can be big – up to five feet deep – but they start small. At a neighbor’s house a few doors away, on U.S. Highway 209, Smith pointed to a spot in the lawn where, she said, a sinkhole was coming.
“I mean, step in here – look at that!” Smith turns to her husband.
“It’s spongy! Oh, my God! That’s a hole — that’s a sinkhole,” he exclaims, his foot sinking eight inches into the ground. “That’s not just coming – that’s there.”
The source of the sinkholes — and all of the flooded basements in the area – is 700 feet underground. The Delaware Aqueduct is leaking, badly, in two places – one directly beneath Wawarsing. The tunnel loses up to 35 million gallons a day, enough to supply tap water to the entire city of St. Louis. And a lot of it is soaking into the ground beneath the neighborhood, and under Highway 209 – the only highway in town.
U.S. Representative Maurice Hinchey, the Democrat who represents Wawarsing, says there’s a possibility that the structure of the road could erode.
“Without that road, it would be very difficult for people to move from one place to another. And the longer this goes on, the greater the likelihood that there will be larger problems that will come about, and that those larger problems are potentially likely to affect larger numbers of people,” Hinchey says.
For example, sinkholes could topple a high-tension line, or floods could destroy buildings. Hinchey’s been putting pressure on the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which owns the Aqueduct, to fix the leaks. But the DEP won’t confirm that its tunnel is the source of the water – despite the fact that it issued a paper this past June titled, “Wawarsing Leak Report.”
More importantly, Hinchey says, the tunnel’s a symbol of what’s wrong with infrastructure nationwide: It’s decades old and falling apart. If it fails completely, Wawarsing could be inundated – and eight million people in New York City would lose half of their water supply. Sometimes it seems like a problem from hell is seeping upwards from the underworld into the lives of Laura Smith and her neighbors. On a fall night, they gather around her kitchen table to eat zucchini bread and talk.
“Bottom line is, we all own homes that are worthless,” says Richard Eisinger, the guy with the brand new sinkhole in his yard.
“When I bought this home, it was so our daughter could finish school. And eventually we planned on retiring and moving away from the areai¿½ Now we have a couple hundred thousand dollars tied up in something that’s worthless,” Eisinger says.
“Our assets are now liabilities,” his neighbors agree.
His neighbor Julianne Lennon nods. “We’ve done so much work on our home that we’ll never get a return on,” she says. “Never.”
Money’s the problem for government officials, too: It’ll cost billions to fix the leaks, if they can be fixed at all. Some engineers think that the water itself may be the only thing that’s keeping the tunnel from collapsing completely. The neighbors in Wawarsing hope that the leak under their houses won’t get as bad as the other leak in the Aqueduct, like one near the banks of the Hudson River. That one’s turned a small valley into a swamp and seems to be opening up a sinkhole on the shoulder of a nearby road. Water rushes out through a ditch and then flows under a power plant.
This weekend, the DEP will “blow off” the tunnel – in other words, let most of the water drain from it. Residents in Wawarsing say they’ll be checking to see if their basement walls dry out.