The Tide is High

The Eastern seaboard may be gripped by drought this summer, but in the cellars of Brooklyn and Queens, it’s a different story. According to reports prepared for the city by the U.S. Geological Survey and environmental consultant Malcolm Pirnie Inc., banks, schools, subway tunnels, hospitals, housing projects, and homes are being soaked by groundwater flooding of truly biblical proportions. So much water bubbles up from the Brooklyn-Queens aquifer, once the source of much of the boroughs’ drinking water, that millions of gallons must be pumped from basements and other subterranean sites throughout Kings and Queens Counties each day.

The problem, according to Malcolm Pirnie hydrogeologist Don Cohen, began decades ago, when “zones of depression” were created as groundwater was pumped out of the aquifer, lowering its level by as much as 50 feet. But when pumping was cut back in favor of the city’s upstate water supply, the result was even more depressing: As the aquifer rose again, basements, bank vaults, and tunnels that had been built in dry soil began to look more like underground swimming pools.

The New York City Transit Authority’s “dewatering” system now includes about 300 pump rooms throughout the subway system, according to TA spokesman James Anyansi, pumping an average of 17 million gallons from waterlogged stations and tunnels each day and sending them to sewers and local waterways – just to keep trains running at all. Several million gallons a day have been pumped from the TA’s Archer Avenue tunnel near Jamaica Center alone. “The Archer Avenue tunnel is a bit of an embarrassment for the Transit Authority, quite frankly,” says one person familiar with the reports. “I’ve had some people describe going through that tunnel like going through a car wash.”

Although the TA has considered various multi-million-dollar draining solutions, there is nothing yet in the works that would match the scale of last year’s $135 million “rehabilitation” of Manhattan’s Lenox Avenue subway tunnel, undertaken to solve groundwater-leakage problems that had plagued it since it was built in 1904.

The New York Department of Environmental Protection, which commissioned the reports, would like to integrate groundwater pumping with the city’s upstate water supply. One alternative would let the Brooklyn-Queens aquifer recover to its “natural maximum,” so that more water would be available in drought years like this one. But that would only exacerbate the flooding, experts say, and an even more comprehensive – and expensive – dewatering program would probably have to be developed to deal with it.

The DEP could not be reached for comment, and some who worked on the reports wonder whether the agency isn’t keeping a low profile for fear of lawsuits from residents and businesses finding themselves all washed up. Cohen insists that “this was a foreseeable and predictable condition.” Maybe so, but no one told us the basement- den wet bar was going to be that wet.

The Tide is High