Third water tunnel opens, providing backup lifeline to Manhattan

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Bloomberg under Central Park. (Spencer T Tucker via Flickr)
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This afternoon, in an echoey cavern 200 feet below Central Park, Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared both midtown and lower Manhattan safe from a waterless catastophe.

"The truth is that until today, if there was ever a major failure of Water Tunnel No. 1, the potential for public health and safety consequences in Manhattan could have been really grim," said the mayor, speaking to the press in a concrete "sectionalization chamber" at a location under the park that both he and his aides asked the press not to disclose, for safety reasons.

Several hundred more feet below where Bloomberg was standing, the third water tunnel split into two, one branch running east into Queens and another, the newly activated one, running south into Midtown and lower Manhattan. 

Until today, lower Manhattan was served by only one, nearly century-old tunnel whose critical role supplying water to city residents meant that engineers couldn't turn it off and inspect it.

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"If we were to lose one of the tunnels without backup, that part of the city would be uninhabitable," said Bloomberg. "You just can't live where you don't have water."

The third water tunnel is more than four decades in the making.

City officials first broke ground on the project in 1970, only to see it fall victim to the financial crisis.

When Bloomberg first took office, his department of environmental protection, then led by Christopher Ward, wanted to see the project restarted again.

Bloomberg agreed and plowed $2.7 billion into the effort.

"Most of the money to redo the infrastructure in this city has come from the New York City tax and rate payers," said Bloomberg. "Everybody bitches about it, but the truth of the matter is, it's the kind of investments we have to make."

"I don't know if it was going to happen in five years or ten years, but at some point this was going to fail," Ward told me.

What would have happened then?

"I think it's in some ways more devastating than a blackout," he said. "No toilets and drinking water."

The next step is to complete the tunnel running through Brooklyn and Queens, a project that is expected to be complete in 2021.

In the meantime, there's other water-related work to be done.

"Today, the city faces another water crisis," said Cas Holloway, the deputy mayor for operations. "The seas are warming and sea levels are rising, threatening our coastal city. ... So, as we mark this major milestone in the city's history, it's worth noting that we are far from finished."

Here's a handy map of the project: