Energy and Environment

Wary Water Before the Storm: A Failure to Communicate in NYC

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On the eve of the blizzard this past Friday, residents in Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights and Inwood neighborhoods turned on their faucets only to discover brown to dark brown water flushing from their taps. What’s even more outrageous is that residents experiencing this problem had to turn to Twitter for answers and solutions. While it is a good example of how helpful social media can be during a small scale disaster, it did not make up for the fact that the NYC Department of Environmental Protection left many people with unreliable solutions during a time of emergency.

Local Councilman Mark Levine reported to local news station NY1 that Port Authority Bus Terminal in Washington Heights experienced a water leak causing an emergency shutdown and back flow in pipes. On Facebook he shared a message at 5 PM stating, “I have been in contact with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection…They have tested tap water, found it to be safe, and are currently flushing hydrant lines to remove discoloration.” The water was more than discolored, however, it contained sediment as well. The Department of Environmental Protection instructed people with brown water to run their cold water for a few minutes before using the water, and to report it to 311. However, local residents still found issues with their water after these statements, and continued to tweet about the water into the evening.

Even Levine expressed that the water in his own apartment still resembled a light brown after DEP’s solution stating, “I don’t think anyone would want to drink this.” So, it is concerning that the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) would suggest the water safe with these issues still happening, especially with a record breaking storm approaching the area.

It is still unclear what exactly caused the water leak at Port Authority although DEP spokeswoman Mercedes Padilla reported that it was not unusual. But the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan makes this situation all the more alarming–trust for public officials remains low. On Monday, January 25, Amsterdam News reported the water supply safe. To ensure the public of its safety, Levine stated,

What is also undeniable is that New York City has one of the safest water supply systems of any big city in the country. Our city’s stringent testing protocols are known for their rigor and transparency. And anyone who is concerned about the safety of their tap water can request a free lead testing kit.

As seen in Flint, it is hard to regain the trust of citizens once they have been lied to, so it is important that officials offered these assuring words. But residents could have benefited from a premature warning from DEP or Port Authority of the initial disturbance in the water, especially with the news of the blizzard soon to hit that next morning. If anything, people should not be concerned about the safety of their water when the evidence clearly shows otherwise–whether the incident is taking place in NYC, Flint, or anywhere else.

Dorsey Hill
Dorsey is a member of Barnard College’s class of 2016 with a major in Urban Studies and concentration in Political Science. As a native of Chicago and resident of New York City, Dorsey loves to explore the multiple cultural facets of cities. She has a deep interest in social justice issue especially those relevant to urban environments. Contact Dorsey at



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