A Vital Resource May Not Get Enough Attention For Safety

Be Safe: Roosevelt Island Water Towers

Water towers cap the skyline on Roosevelt Island.
Water towers cap the skyline on Roosevelt Island.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

"City officials like to boast that the system provides the finest tap water of any city in the world. But the vast system of safeguards protecting the water supply virtually ends at the curb." -- New York Times. And, according to the same article, 60% of building owners do not comply with safety regulations for water towers. What about Roosevelt Island?

Unlike elevators, water tower inspections, arguably more vital, are not publicly posted. Enforcement is weak, and as we saw last year when RIOC was caught supplying playground water fountains with non potable water, nothing much happens, even when you're caught.

The water towers might be worse than you think.

Not long ago, I approached the property manager at one of Roosevelt Island's largest residential complexes, concerned that the water supply was contaminated from mold in the water tower.

Constant outbreaks of mold and frequent odors of bleach from the water supply were suspicious.

His answer was alarming. It wasn't possible, he said, because "We don't have a water tower."

His buildings are over 20 stories high. Water pressure in the city system can't push water any higher than six floors. So, how do the other 14 plus get theirs, if not from a water tower?

On the Upper East Side, some towers go naked, but most are disguised behind barriers.
On the Upper East Side, some towers go naked, but most are disguised behind barriers.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Let's look at some basic education from Why Water Towers in New York City?

Why do we have water towers in in New York City?

Answer: Water naturally around us isn’t drinkable.

Our rivers aren’t really rivers. They are tidal straits, ice age carved basins flooded with salt water from the Atlantic. Fresh water streams in all five boroughs were hopelessly polluted or covered over long ago.

To make New York City’s density possible, Albany lawmakers passed legislation allowing the metropolis to siphon off huge volumes of water from 19 protected upstate lakes, mostly in the Catskills. We’re addicted. We can’t live without it.

Why Water Towers in New York City?

The reason is simple. Water stolen from upstate flows by gravity into a network of tunnels and pipes that distribute it citywide.

Gravity keeps water flowing and us from flying off the planet, but its power is limited.

Pressure as it arrives in the city is only strong enough to push water up six stories, maximum. So, managers of taller buildings pump it into towers perched on rooftops. From there, gravity goes to work again, dropping the precious flood down into shower heads and spigots on command.

Take a look at how water towers function...


But Back to Roosevelt Island

Take a look up the island from the Tram. Roosevelt Island's skyline is marked as consistently with water towers as the Upper East Side. Because our buildings are newer, none or the towers are naked, but in disguise, they top our buildings like square hats.

It's unlikely that you have the slightest idea when, if ever, the water tower you count on for drinking and hygiene was last inspected. The city's own surveys tell us we shouldn't take it for granted. 60% of building owners are in violation and enforcement is rare.

RIOC stopped supplying water fountains that were later found to be contaminated with unhealthful bacteria only after they were caught at it. And that went on in some parks for more than 20 years.

Suspicious or not, you'd be wise to ask your building manager about it. If they're doing what they're supposed to be doing, the question shouldn't bother them.

But if you get an answer that doesn't sound quite right or is incomplete, maybe it's time to dial up 311 to ask for help.

Water's too vital a resource to rely on faith.

David Stone

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