Mayor Limits Use of Water During Crisis
The New York Times, March 27, 2002
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg declared a drought emergency in New York City yesterday and ordered mandatory restrictions on water use by businesses and residents.
It is the first drought emergency in the city since 1989. The lack of rainstorms during the hurricane season last fall and the unusually warm and dry winter have taken a severe toll on the water supply: the city's reservoirs, which are usually 92 percent full at this time of year, are at 50 percent levels.
And officials said that the cold rain that sent many New Yorkers digging out their trench coats and galoshes yesterday was not enough to make a difference.
Mr. Bloomberg ordered a series of water-saving measures to take effect on Monday. Businesses will be forced to cut their water consumption by 15 percent. Car washing will be prohibited, unless well water is used; so will hosing down sidewalks, driveways and streets. Ornamental fountains will be kept dry. And lawn watering will be allowed only a few hours every other day.
"The city's water supply is something that we absolutely have to protect," Mr. Bloomberg said. "We will get through this period. We hope that nature is kind, and we get a lot of storms. The next 45 days are typically a rainy period, and that will help. But the reason for the declaration of a Stage 1 emergency is that the likelihood, even if we have a lot of rain, is that we will still have our reservoirs at a dangerously low level."
New York City is hardly alone in its drought woes. The federal government has warned of severe to extreme drought conditions along the East Coast from Maine to Georgia. New Jersey ordered statewide restrictions on water use two weeks ago. New York State has declared drought warnings, which call for voluntary conservation measures, in 21 counties. And the city's drought emergency extends to Putnam, Westchester, Ulster and Orange Counties, because they use the city's water system.
A severe dry spell has gripped the metropolitan region since the fall. The months from October to February were the driest on record in southeastern New York State and northern New Jersey, said Todd Miner, a meteorologist at Penn State University. The area received an average of 8.21 inches, he said, half of what it usually gets in that period.
City officials said that as parched as the reservoirs were, they still held enough water to keep the city supplied for another 9 or 10 months. Mr. Bloomberg said that "we're a long ways from ever turning the spout and not having something come out."
But he said the city had to take steps now to conserve water. City officials said that they would step up enforcement of water regulations, which are punishable by fines of $100 to $1,000, with even higher penalties for repeat offenders.
The mayor announced the drought emergency from a metal catwalk in a cavernous chamber some 25 stories below ground in the Bronx. He was in the city's valve chamber, one of the main distribution points in the water system, where millions of gallons of water from the city's upstate reservoirs flow through 34 eight-foot-wide valves each day and are routed into a labyrinth of tunnels and water mains and pipes that eventually carry the water to hot and cold faucets in all five boroughs.
Mr. Bloomberg, trying to be heard above the rumble of the water passing through the pipes, praised the public, saying that people had been using less water since January, when he issued a drought warning.
"The public actually has done a very good job when we have publicized this, and there is no reason to think that they won't understand that this is a resource that has limitations and they'll just have to use less," the mayor said in the chamber.
But even with consumption down from 30 million to 50 million gallons a day, officials said, the city still uses about 1.2 billion gallons a day. They said they hoped the mandatory restrictions would drive water use to below a billion gallons a day, further stretching out the city's supply.
In addition to the restrictions on car and street washing, the drought emergency curtails lawn watering, which will be restricted to four hours a day, every other day. People who live at even-number addresses will be allowed to water their lawns on even-number dates, and people at odd-number addresses on odd-number dates, between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. and 7:00 and 9:00 p.m.
Other restrictions, some of which have been only sporadically enforced in recent years, will be in full effect. Waiters will be allowed to serve tap water in restaurants only if it is requested. Unrepaired leaks will be subject to fines. Officials will crack down on people who open fire hydrants without a permit.
Joel A. Miele, the commissioner of the city's Department of Environmental Protection, said that people would be given warnings before they were fined. "This is a kind and gentle administration," he said. "People will get a warning the first time. And then the second time they will get a summons."
Some environmentalists have said the city should have been quicker to impose water restrictions. Mr. Miele — who is stepping down from his post next week to make room for Mr. Bloomberg's appointee, Christopher O. Ward — said he was satisfied the city had declared an emergency at the proper time.
If it does not rain, and the current restrictions do not save enough water, the city will move to more severe stages of a drought emergency, which would require businesses to cut their consumption by 20 percent, and then 25 percent. In the most severe situation, a Stage 3 emergency, the city could seek permission to pump some water from the Hudson River, purify it and use it in the water system.