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NY1's Roger Clark takes an in-depth look at the inner workings of New York City in this special series.

How NYC Works: Water Supply's Journey a Clear One

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As NY1 continues its new series "How New York City Works," reporter Roger Clark looks at how water makes its way from upstate reservoirs to New Yorkers' faucets.

We do it millions of times a day and don't give it a second thought. We turn on the faucet, and out it comes: the water we drink, cook and wash with, the water we need to survive. One billion gallons delivered to the five boroughs every day.

But from where? And how does it get here?

We start our journey where the water does, at one of the reservoirs in the Catskill-Delaware watershed, about 100 miles north of the city.

You've probably heard the word, but what exactly is a watershed? It's an area where rainfall, snowmelt, streams and rivers all flow or drain into one or more bodies of water, like a man-made reservoir.

This one, the Ashokan near Kingston, N.Y., is one of 19 that, along with three controlled lakes, supply every drop the city gets. The city's Department of Environmental Protection has a police force on around-the-clock patrol to protect the surroundings, which the DEP is always looking to expand through buying land to further protect water quality into the future.

A dike divides the western and eastern portions of the reservoir. At any time, we could be getting water from the west basin or from the east basin. Sometimes, we get a mixture of both.

The folks here can be pretty picky, even deciding what part of the reservoir to draw the water out of.

"We can choose at what elevation of the water we want to withdraw the water from the reservoir so that we get the best water quality possible," says John Vickers, chief of western operations for the DEP's bureau of water supply.

Before it leaves the Ashokan, the water goes through what is called a screen chamber to get rid of objects like leaves, sticks, branches and even fish. However, because the water is so clean to begin with, it's never put through a costly sand and chemical process to remove other impurities, making it one of the largest unfiltered supplies in the world.

The first leg south is through the Catskill Aqueduct, a tunnel dug in the early 20th century.

"This is the water that is working its way down to New York City," Vickers says.

It takes more than a day to travel through the aqueduct, flowing at a leisurely 2.5 to three miles an hour. Gravity pulls it along free of charge.

The water flows into the Kensico Reservoir in Westchester. Fluoride has been added here since 1964 to help prevent tooth decay. It then flows south to a $1.5 billion ultraviolet disinfection plant in central Westchester that went online in 2012. The ultraviolet light kills microorganisms like cryptosporidium and Giardia, which can threaten the health of the very young and old, as well as those with weakened immune systems.

"The largest ultraviolet treatment plant in the world, and that's what's necessary," said former DEP Commissioner Carter Strickland. "A capacity of 2 billion gallons a day. We deliver about 1 billion gallons a day to New Yorkers. This is another layer in a multi-layered system to make sure that our drinking water is safe."

To guarantee that, there's testing at DEP labs upstate and in the city. Lots of testing.

"We collect samples from approximately 1,500 different locations, ranging from aqueduct monitoring sites, distribution sampling sites, sampling stations within the city," says Lori Emery, chief of watershed water quality operations for the DEP. "Up here in the watershed, we collect samples from the reservoirs, from streams, from wastewater treatment plants."

To continue following the water's trek, we made our way to Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers, the last spot before it is shot into the three tunnels that bring it into town. It's where we met up with DEP Deputy Commissioner Jimmy Roberts, a Washington Heights native who knows a thing or two about water.

"Our role here is really to be able to control and sort of channel," Roberts says. "We're like the flight controllers, making sure the water's headed in the right direction and that it's managed at the right pressures."

You can see the water gently making its way across the reservoir. Wires overhead provide low-tech protection to keep water fowl out, along with what they sometimes leave behind. Hillview is also where chlorine is added to the water to further disinfect it.

Finally, it's south to the valve chambers that control the flow to the three city water tunnels. The one we visited was in the Bronx. We can't tell you exactly where, because the facility is too important.

"We're on our way down to the valve chamber, so we're traveling roughly 25 stories - you know, for round numbers - beneath the street level," Roberts says.

This chamber is for Water Tunnel #3, the newest one, which currently serves Manhattan but eventually could send water into the Bronx and Queens. The place is massive, around the size of two football fields.

"The tunnel itself that goes into the city is another several hundred feet below us," Roberts says.

Since that was not an option for us, we hit the road to follow the water to a spot in the West Village, more than 100 miles from where we started.

At this point, the water is just about ready for you to drink or take a shower with. At this location is a spot where it sprouts out from the tunnel to all the different homes and business in the area. The distribution chamber is downstairs.

"The third water tunnel is directly below us, probably 4- to 500 feet, so the water just rises back up," Roberts says. "From this point on, it's going to tie in to the local distribution system outside that starts to make its way to the residents' houses."

The people responsible for all of this are the city officials who, more than a century and a half ago, started the process of making sure the future residents would have clean and safe drinking water. Those currently responsible don't take that for granted.

Clark: Are you still sometimes amazed that it actually works?
Roberts: Well, it better work. If it doesn't work, then we have a problem. No, but I think sort of the scale of what we do, sometimes even people in my type of role, you have to take a step back and realize the enormity of it and how many people it's effecting. I mean, there are 8 to 9 million people. Every day, they're getting up and having their coffee and taking their showers, and they really don't think about us day to day, but we think about them all the time.

There are 1,000 DEP water sampling stations around the city, and we're going to head out to Queens and find out from a DEP worker how they use it to monitor the water. It's all about making sure the water is properly treated and safe to drink.

"The testing that we do here at the curb is representing what people are drinking right next to us in the buildings that these sample stations are next to," says Salome Freud, chief of distribution and water quality operations at the DEP. "It's the same pipe feeding the station that feeds a home or an apartment building."

So how does that water get up to your faucet? Well, for buildings that are six or seven stories tall, the pressure that the water system provides mostly does the work. For taller buildings, pumps are necessary to get the water to a higher elevation, like those water towers that dot the city skyline. Once the water is pumped up, gravity brings it back down and provides the pressure to deliver the water to apartments and businesses.

So that's how water gets to your place, and that's how New York City works.

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Producers: Davide Cannaviccio and Jessica Steiner
Editor: Dan Komarinetz
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