DEP acting Commissioner Vincent Sapienza on safeguarding NYC’s most valuable resource

Vincent Sapienza came on at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection in 1983, and he has been working ever since on keeping the city’s water supply clean and reliable. Prior to his promotion last summer to acting commissioner, he oversaw the agency’s Bureau of Engineering Design and Construction, which deals with such long-term projects as New York City Water Tunnel No. 3 and the Croton Water Filtration Plant.

In an interview with City & State, Sapienza talked about the vast scope of his work, the cost of keeping the sprawling water system in good repair and how the agency is bolstering its resilience to storms like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene. 

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C&S: The Department of Environmental Protection is unique in that it does a lot of long-term work. How does that drive the agency’s strategy?

VS: We’ve got infrastructure in New York City that’s been built out really over the last 175 years. The water was brought down from Croton for the first time in 1842. We’ve got not only the pipes underground here in the city and the wastewater infrastructure here, but we’ve got a watershed that is as far as 125 miles outside of the city, so maintaining a state of good repair on all that infrastructure is really one of our top priorities. We have a capital plan of close to $2 billion a year over the next 10 years, and we need to make sure that all of that equipment that we and seven generations of our predecessors have painstakingly installed is maintained for the long run.

C&S: Mayors and administrations come and go, and projects may be politically expedient at times and not so at other times. Do politics ever pose a challenge when your tasks are so long-term and span multiple administrations?

VS: I’ve been here 34 years, and whenever we’ve needed funding for critical projects, it’s been there. Maybe we, among the other city agencies, are a little unique because we do have a dedicated source of funding. During the 1980s, the system was set up with a water board and the municipal water plan. We’ve always been able to raise the funds that we need. Mayor de Blasio this past April published a 10-year capital plan for the whole city and including DEP and our capital plan is the largest that it’s ever been over the next 10 years. So we’re in reasonably good shape.

C&S: Last year, The New York Times had a story about the mayor postponing funding for Water Tunnel No. 3, a critical project, although it quickly became clear that there would be funding for the project. How did that play out? What’s the status of the project?

VS: There are a few different legs, and the leg to Manhattan went into service in 2013. The other leg that goes through Brooklyn and Queens, the tunnel itself was completed about 10 years ago. Shafts to bring the water to the surface, there’s a couple that still need to be built, which we’d always intended to start building the last two shafts in the early 2020s. When DEP spoke to the Times last year, there was some information that didn’t get conveyed correctly, but the work is on schedule. In fact, the mayor pushed money up and the work for those two last shafts is going to start in 2020, instead of 2021, as we had intended. That work is moving along, and we’re looking good there.

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C&S: What’s the finish line on that project?

VS: Right now, we’re looking in the mid-20s, probably somewhere in the 2025-2026 timeline to get those two last shafts completed and have water into distribution. One of the things, even though those two shafts aren’t going to be done and we have seven or eight years to go before we have water to the surface, we are doing something that the mayor asked us to do, which is to have the tunnel activation-ready. So the tunnel has been empty since we completed it, and he asked why can’t we just have water in there – in the event of an emergency, it’s unlikely, but something may happen to City Water Tunnel No. 2, why can’t we have Tunnel No. 3 activation-ready? And we’ve been moving ahead with that. We’ve done a lot of good work this year, and we think by the end of this calendar year, in the next few months, we will have water in City Tunnel No. 3, so in a matter of a couple days we can have water distributed again if anything really bad happened in the city and we lost Tunnel No. 2 water.

C&S: There’s been a lot of attention in the news on hurricanes Harvey and Irma and people looking back to Superstorm Sandy in New York City. If a similar storm struck New York, are we better prepared?

VS: Storms like Sandy and even Irene before that did have impacts on our facilities, and in a couple of ways. With the storm surge from Sandy, a lot of our DEP facilities are right along the coastline, essentially all 14 of our wastewater treatment plants are at the shoreline, and they were built there on purpose to use topology and gravity sewers. So we had impacts at those plants during Sandy. Irene and Tropical Storm Lee dumped a lot of rain, and while it didn’t impact the city that much, upstate our reservoirs, which get runoff like crazy during heavy rains, did have some impact, the impact being turbidity. You get a lot of runoff into our reservoirs in a short period of time, just the clay and silt is going to get stirred up. As lessons from those storms, we’ve put together … a $300 million resiliency contract, and it has 200 individual jobs that we’re doing, mostly at our wastewater treatment plants and our wastewater pumping stations. It’s just things where it will help bolster the facilities that we have there now, including elevating critical electrical equipment just to get that out of the flood plain, some hardening around key buildings and structures, like just putting in some waterproof doors.

We’ve been looking at a lot of those things, and that work is underway. But they’re all smart investments. We also looked at potential avoidance of damage with another Sandy-type storm, and we think the $300 million worth of work that we’re going to potentially avoid about $2 billion worth of damages – it makes sense. I want to add that it goes to show that the limited amount of damage we had after Sandy, particularly at our wastewater treatment plans, we at DEP were back in service at our plants within a matter of a couple of days, we were treating sewage. A lot of our neighbors took significant damage to their plants and were out of service for weeks and months. It goes to show that over the decades we have made those investments and our facilities have continued to be pretty robust.

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