Water Resources Engineering (WRE) connects engineering hydrology and hydraulics with societal, environmental, and other issues. Our student Mr. Bondi makes this connection here…

Everybody wants to solve conflicts and often times the most common choice is the least expensive in terms of cost. However, more often than not by solving one problem another will arise as you disrupt the status quo. It can also be said that typically the cheaper alternative will cause the greatest disruption. This is exactly the case in the ongoing conflict between New York City (NYC) DEP and Delaware County. This conflict stems from the fact that NYC’s drinking water comes from surface water in upstate New York primarily in the Delaware County area. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), originally passed by congress in 1974, NYC was required to either build an expensive filtration system, upward estimates of eight billion dollars, or clean and maintain pollution at the water’s source. The city elected to choose the cheaper alternative and clean the pollution at the water’s source. This makes NYC’s watershed the largest source of unfiltered drinking water in the country, serving over eight million residents.

NYC Watershed Areas (image courtesy of NYC DEP)

This relates to water resources engineering (WRE) by displaying the societal and the economical problems that can arise when WRE is put into practice. NYC has used fee simple and conservation easements to buy and protect lands upwards of 22,812 acres as of 2008. This has dramatically increased land value in Delaware from a median value in 2000 of $74,200 for a single family home to $124,500 in 2006. Delaware County is already one of the least affluent counties in the state with a median household income of only $41,862 and with a population of 46,000 people. In the past Delaware County was used much for agricultural and industrial land, but ever since NYC began to buy vast amounts of land, much of land can no longer be developed because of conservation easements. These data estimates all reference government data including the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The broader context lies in the effects of WRE practices combined with political, economical, and societal factors. Engineering in its absolute form can be used to solve many problems we humans face. However, implementing them in such a way that solves the imminent problems while also keeping a balance and everyone else happy is near impossible in reality. This can be seen in the passage of SDWA which forced cities to supply clean water to their residents which can be seen by many as a good step forward. However, supplying clean water to everybody is an incredibly expensive feat. This made NYC choose a cheaper alternative by protecting the land around the water source instead of developing a filtration device. This in turn caused turmoil in the neighboring county of Delaware by disrupting its societal, economical, and political structures. Water resources engineering was used here to protect watersheds from pollution, but ultimately created a host of other problems when it was combined with politics and real world cost.