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Riverkeeper Multi-Year Study Answers Question – Is My Tap Water Safe to Drink?


Tina Posterli, Riverkeeper, [email protected], 516-526-9371

Finds quality of New York City water remains high, but identifies concerns and potential future threats and calls for City action on pharmaceuticals, turbidity, waterborne pathogens and lead at the tap

White Plains, NY – May 22, 2013– Riverkeeper today released a multi-year study evaluating New York’s unfiltered drinking water supply. The study finds that although the quality of New York City’s drinking water quality remains high, the City exceeded limits for lead at the tap and turbidity in certain reservoirs and the distribution system in multiple years. In addition, the report highlights a number of potential threats to the future quality of New York City’s drinking water. These include: 1) waterborne pathogens in reservoirs that supply the City system; 2) potential health impacts from pharmaceuticals; and 3) the possibility of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in close proximity to the Catskill and Delaware Watersheds, which could compromise the City’s drinking water supply infrastructure.

Kate Hudson, Watershed Program Director, stated, “Our report answers an important and frequently asked question for the nine million New York City and Hudson Valley residents who rely on New York City’s reservoir system for the water they drink each day. Yes it is safe to drink, but there are threats and challenges ahead. Based on the problems we have identified, we are recommending actions that the City needs to take now in order to protect this precious resource. The cost of not putting solutions in place to combat these very real threats is far too great to ignore.”

Riverkeeper’s study calls on the City to resume testing for pharmaceuticals, to enhance source controls to reduce or eliminate waterborne pathogens in Catskill reservoirs, to implement effective turbidity controls to reduce risk from pathogens and avoid costly filtration and to require retrofitting of lead-soldered plumbing in households where lead is detected in tap water. Riverkeeper’s study is based on a comparison of New York City’s annual drinking water quality reports with those from 13 other large U.S. cities, including 4 that also rely on unfiltered drinking water.


  • New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the operator of the City’s water supply system, maintains a robust and comprehensive water quality testing program. In all four years reviewed, the City tested drinking water for more contaminants than any of the U.S. cities surveyed (an average of 266 over the study period), except for San Francisco in 2008 (249 vs. 231).
  • All cities had very few exceedances, indicating that overall drinking water quality in the cities surveyed is very high.
  • Lead contamination, which is caused by lead soldered plumbing in older buildings, remains a concern at the tap. Over the four-year study period, New York reported the highest average number of samples that exceeded drinking water standards for lead (14.8). Boston reported an average of 11.5 exceedances and the remaining surveyed cities ranged from 0.0 (San Jose, Chicago, San Francisco) to 4.7 (Philadelphia). In 2010, New York established a program to replace all city-owned lead service lines and subsequently reported a reduced number of lead exceedances (30 in 2010 to 20 in 2011).
  • Waterborne pathogens are present in New York City’s water supply system. The City reported detection of small numbers (<12) of waterborne pathogens in approximately 80% of the water samples tested. Two pathogens of concern are the microscopic protozoa Giardia and Cryptosporidium. Although no waterborne disease outbreaks were attributed to City drinking water supplies, the presence of any potentially disease-causing organisms in drinking water supplies is of concern, particularly to upstate communities that receive water from the Catskill/Delaware system that has not been treated by the City’s UV disinfection facility in Westchester County.
  • Pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), contaminants of emerging concern due to their possible impacts on human health and aquatic ecosystems, were detected in New York City’s water supply. Virtually all PPCPs are contaminants for which no state or federal drinking water standards have been established, and only 5 of the 14 filtered and unfiltered cities surveyed reported testing drinking water for PPCPs in 2009 and 2010 (New York, Seattle, Chicago, Boston and Portland, Oregon). After confirming the presence of trace concentrations of some PPCPs in the City’s surface water supplies in 2010, New York was the only one of the 5 cities that did not continue to test for PPCPs in 2011.
    To guarantee the continued high quality of New York City drinking water into the future, Riverkeeper strongly recommends that DEP undertake the following actions:

    • Resume testing for pharmaceuticals and other contaminants of emerging concern to monitor presence of and changes in the concentrations of these compounds. In addition, we urge New York State and the federal government to develop regulatory standards for these contaminants in municipal drinking water supplies.
    • Require retrofitting of lead-soldered plumbing in households where lead is detected in tap water.
    • Reduce or eliminate waterborne pathogens in drinking water supplies by continuing to identify and monitor the sources of those pathogens and maintain and if necessary, enhance source controls, such as the Whole Farm Program and the Waterfowl Management Program, to address those causes.
    • Implement effective turbidity control measures to reduce risk from pathogens and avoid costly filtration. Increased turbidity associated with climate change and land use practices can mask or prevent proper disinfection of pathogens, and could prompt NYSDOH to require costly filtration of New York’s drinking water supply. To protect New York City’s reservoirs, delivery system and consumers, DEP should continue to implement turbidity control measures that include, but are not limited to, expanding the Stream Management Plan to remediate more impaired Catskill stream reaches, and should re-evaluate and implement structural control practices such as a multi-level intake in the Schoharie Reservoir and/or a clarification facility downstream of the Ashokan Reservoir.

    New York City and more than 60 upstate municipalities receive their drinking water from a 2,000-square-mile watershed in the Catskill Mountains west of the Hudson River, and Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess Counties east of the Hudson. Since 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency has granted New York a Filtration Avoidance Determination (FAD), which allows the City to avoid filtering its water by investing in comprehensive protection programs for the New York City Watershed. These programs protect both the quality of New York City’s water and the watershed environment while saving the City’s water consumers the cost of a multi-billion-dollar filtration plant. Riverkeeper was a signatory of the historic 1997 Watershed Memorandum of Agreement governing management of the watershed as a source of unfiltered drinking water.

    The federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires New York City and all operators of municipal drinking water supplies to identify contaminants and report the results to the public. Riverkeeper obtained and analyzed the annual drinking water quality reports of the 10 largest U.S. cities from 2008 – 2011: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Dallas, San Diego and San Jose. Among these, New York is the only city with an unfiltered drinking water supply. In addition, Riverkeeper compared New York’s water quality with four other large cities that have unfiltered drinking water: San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Portland, Oregon.

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