NEW YORK — Two hours north of New York City, a mile-long stream and a marsh the size of a football field have mysteriously formed along a country road. They are such a marvel that people come from miles around to drink the crystal-clear water, believing it is bubbling up from a hidden natural spring.
The truth is far less romantic: The water is coming from a cracked 70-year-old tunnel hundreds of feet below ground, scientists say.
The tunnel is leaking up to 36-million gallons a day as it carries drinking water from a reservoir to the big city. It is a powerful warning sign of a larger problem around the country: The infrastructure that delivers water to the nation's cities is aging and in need of repairs.
The Environmental Protection Agency says utilities will need to invest more than $277-billion over the next two decades on repairs and improvements to drinking water systems. Water industry engineers put the figure drastically higher, at about $480-billion.
Water utilities, largely managed by city governments, have never faced improvements of this magnitude before. And customers will have to bear most of the cost through rate increases, according to the American Water Works Association, an industry group.
Engineers say this is a crucial era for the nation's water systems, especially in older cities like New York, where some pipes and tunnels were built in the 1800s and are nearing the end of their life expectancies.
"Our generation hasn't experienced anything like this. We weren't around when the infrastructure was being built," said Greg Kail, spokesman for the water industry group. "We didn't pay for the pipes to be put in the ground, but we sure benefited from the improvements to public health that came from it."
He said the situation has not reached crisis stage, but without a serious investment, "it can become a crisis. Each year the problem is put on the back burner, the price tag is going to go up."
The amount of wasted water from breaches is staggering.
The 36-million gallons a day that leak from the 85-mile-long Delaware Aqueduct in New York state amounts to more than 1-billion gallons a month, enough to change the ecology of the area, say scientists from the Riverkeeper environmental watchdog group. That may be a drop in the bucket compared with the hundreds of billions of gallons of water consumed in New York City every year, but the daily leak in the tunnel would meet the daily demands of drought-ravaged Raleigh, N.C.
Residents in Wawarsing, about 100 miles from New York City, blame tunnel leaks for the constant flooding in their yards and basements. Department of Environmental Protection engineers are trying to determine whether the aqueduct is responsible for the soggy mess along Route 209 that has gotten considerably worse over the last 10 years.
Utilities spend about $10.4-billion annually on large-scale repairs and improvements on drinking water infrastructure, a figure that has been relatively flat during the past two decades, the EPA said.
Cities have a hard time convincing residents that they should spend money on something they never see, buried hundreds of feet underground. And often, public officials pawn the responsibility off on the next person elected, Kail said.
Repairs tend to be long and costly, especially since many systems were built nearly a century ago, deep underground, where buildings and major roads now stand. Even monitoring pipes for vulnerabilities can be expensive and tricky, since it's not possible to shut down a city's water supply to test for leaks.
Around the country, water rates are going up to help pay for the repairs, estimated at anywhere between $550 and $7,000 per household during the next three decades.