News Feature | January 31, 2014

Dirty New York Water Towers Fly Under Regulatory Radar

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


The New York City skyline is dotted with rustic water towers. They contain water that eventually comes through the tap. 

But a New York Times investigation turned up some unsavory discoveries about these towers: They are poorly regulated and dirty. 

"There are often thick layers of muddy sediment. Many have not been cleaned or inspected in years. And regulations governing water tanks are rarely enforced," the report said. 

The investigation discovered harmful bacteria in the tanks. "Even some that are routinely maintained contain E. coli," the report said. 

Investigators drew samples from water towers at 12 buildings in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. They "found E. coli in five tanks, and coliform in those tanks and three more. Coliform by itself is not harmful, but does indicate that conditions are ripe for the growth of potentially dangerous microorganisms," the report said. 

How alarming is that, really?

Stephen C. Edberg, a public-health microbiologist at Yale University "who invented the now-standard test for bacterial contamination in drinking water," found it horrifying. 

When the Times contacted him for input, he "immediately alerted the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The department has oversight over the tanks."

“Fecal contamination means that the towers are subject to animal intrusion, almost certainly birds, and potentially animals such as squirrels,” Dr. Edberg wrote in an email to the department, published by the Times. “Clearly, these units are not sealed to the outside.

The health department's response to the Times: It "said the methodology used and the conclusions drawn by The Times were flawed. The department said The Times used non-sterilized equipment and had not followed suggested testing protocols.”

The Times reports that they followed protocols exactly as recommended.

Citing the same investigation, NBC New York summarized how poorly the tanks are regulated: "Building owners are largely responsible for ensuring their water tanks do not get contaminated, and that they meet standards required by the city's building and health codes. But nearly 60 percent of building owners don't comply, city surveys show, and the city hasn't done much to enforce the laws governing the management of water tanks."

The city said it would "continue to conduct its annual surveys, but didn't plan to expand the laws," NBC reported. 

Gizmodo explained why New York is using these water towers at all:  "The answer is relatively simple: Many buildings taller than six or seven stories need their own method of supplying water pressure to the floors below. There are thus nearly 20,000 of these tanks in the city, supplying drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people."

For more on government oversight, and sometimes a lack thereof, check out Water Online's Regulations and Legislation Solution Center

Image credit: "Water Towers (New York, NY)," © 2011 takomabibelot, used under a Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

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