The Water Underground

You turn on the tap and the water flows. You press the lever and the toilet flushes. But where does your drinking water come from? And where does the wastewater go?

As the Brooklyn-based Center for Urban Pedagogy learned, in the course of researching its video, The Water Underground, most of us haven’t a clue — and some of us might not want to know. “Below the surface of New York City,” says the CUP promo, “lurks an immense grid of pipes designed to carry water in various states of grossness.” Or, in the words of one of their interviewees, the superintendent of a wastewater treatment plant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side: “You flush the bowl … it goes to the center of the earth. Somebody else’s problem.”

Created by CUP in collaboration with the Lower East Side Ecology Center and City-as-School, the 24-minute video tracks the complex — and aging and sometimes contested — systems of water supply, treatment and waste that serve New York City.

The CUP staff and student researchers and videographers criss-crossed the five boroughs and assembled a multi-vocal primer on some essential urban infrastructure. We hear from engineers, plant superintendents, construction workers, marine biologists, urban divers, educators, and environmental justice advocates. We learn that New York City uses about 1.3 billion gallons of water per day (or 200 gallons per person; just slightly above the average for developed cities, according to the Colorado-based Water Information Program) and that all these gallons come from three watersheds (the Croton, Delaware, and Catskill) and are treated in 14 water pollution control plants. We learn that for many years just two tunnels — Water Tunnel No. 1, completed in 1917, and Water Tunnel No. 2, completed in 1935 — have carried water into New York, and that the city is finally constructing a much-needed third — Water Tunnel No. 3 — scheduled to be operational in 2012.

The CUP team is sensitive to matters of environmental justice, and so we learn too that most of the treatment plants that serve the entire city are located in Harlem and the Bronx. Which means, as one community activist put it, “When Robert De Niro flushes his toilet in Tribeca, Harlem has to deal with it.”

Continuing our affiliation with the Center for Urban Pedagogy, which began with Bodega Down Bronx, Places is pleased to present The Water Underground. Made in 2006, the video has so far had only limited screenings in New York City and Rotterdam. CUP is planning to release the video in the coming weeks, along with a related project, Sewer in a Suitcase.

Nancy Levinson and Center for Urban Pedagogy, “The Water Underground,” Places Journal, May 2010. Accessed 10 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Scott Dempwolf

    05.22.2010 at 12:39

    Outstanding production! informative and entertaining. congratulations to everyone involved!

  • David

    05.26.2010 at 10:36

    Incredible doc for anyone who lives in a city.

  • 05.29.2010 at 04:05

    Good effort; very interesting!