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Citywide Water Monitoring System Is Suspended After Agency Cuts Funding

 The U.S. Geological Survey has for decades monitored the quality and level of surface water, such as the Bronx River, and groundwater throughout New York City and part of Nassau County.
The U.S. Geological Survey has for decades monitored the quality and level of surface water, such as the Bronx River, and groundwater throughout New York City and part of Nassau County.
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DNAinfo/Jeanmarie Evelly

NEW YORK CITY — A network of hundreds of instruments that for decades tracked the quality, level and flow of water in the city and part of Nassau County has stopped collecting that data following a city decision to cease funding it.

The U.S. Geological Survey maintains the monitoring system, which costs about $1 million annually to operate. Under a five-year contract that expired May 1, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection paid 80 percent of those costs and the federal government covered the rest.

The city has decided not to renew its contract with the USGS, saying it no longer needs the data.

Scientists, water managers and engineers have used the data — much of it gathered in real-time and some dating back more than 80 years — to predict flooding, detect contamination and evaluate construction sites.

“It’s irreplaceable data,” said Timothy Eaton, a hydrology professor at Queens College who incorporates the data into his teaching and research.

He called the city’s decision “shortsighted” and compared it to disabling a car’s fuel gauge.

“You’d drive around without any idea how much gas you have in your tank,” Eaton said. “Not a smart idea.”

The network includes 197 measuring stations in wells, 10 stations in rivers and lakes, one meteorological station and 131 water-quality stations across the five boroughs and western Nassau County.

USGS has partnered with the DEP for the past 30 years, but some of the devices have been in place nearly three times as long, according to Ron Busciolano, a USGS supervisory hydrologist.

The city has used the data to check how much plant fertilizer is washed into coastal areas and to calculate how much water must be pumped out before beginning construction on the subway, Busciolano said.

When an aquifer in Queens provided a source of municipal drinking water decades ago, the city used the devices there to monitor it, Busciolano noted. Recently, it used the same stations to test whether that supply could supplement the city’s upstate reservoirs when a tunnel is taken offline for repairs in a few years, he added.

The National Weather Service consults the system’s real-time water-level gages during storms, Busciolano said. And scientists study the historical data as they track climate change and rising sea levels.

“All of these things are going to be hampered without up-to-date data to use,” he said.

Eaton makes extensive use of the system’s meteorological station, which is housed on a roof at Queens College.

By combining that station’s data with those gathered at nearby groundwater and stream sites, he and his students can precisely measure the impact of rainfall on stream flow, Eaton said.

Such measurements could prove invaluable to the DEP as it funds green-infrastructure projects meant to limit the amount of storm water that flows into the sewer system, Eaton added.

“To evaluate how well these things are working,” he said, “you have to know how much rain is falling.”

Ted Timbers, a DEP spokesman, said that the water monitoring the agency funded during its long partnership with the USGS “supported projects that are now complete,” though he declined to cite specific projects.

“New York City ratepayers will not continue to fund studies that are not necessary,” he said.

The DEP currently monitors all the wells in its system and would do so for any additional ones that were activated, such as those in Queens, Timbers added.

The USGS is now approaching other groups that use the data it collects to ask if they will help fund it, Busciolano said.

Meanwhile, some of those groups are planning to appeal to the DEP to restore funding.

The Bronx River Alliance, a nonprofit that uses data from a USGS gage on the river, intends to write the DEP’s commissioner to describe the gage’s significance, according to a person who works with the group. (The group referred questions to the Parks Department, its government partner, which did not respond.)

Chauncy Young, co-founder of the Harlem River Working Group, said his coalition recently met with the USGS and the DEP to discuss installing a monitor in the river.

Now, those plans must be revisited.

“This stuff is really important,” Young said of the monitoring data, “if you’re trying to understand your environment and how you can make improvements to it.”