Something about the water tasted wrong to Gary Axelbank. It caught him off-guard, and he couldn’t figure out what the problem was.
While the Van Cortlandt Village resident doesn’t drink a ton of New York City water, when he does, he makes sure to run it through a filter before taking a sip. He first noticed the odd taste this month while using his water flosser.
“I noticed a really distinct, moldy taste,” Axelbank said, “like moldy bread.”
Axelbank wasn’t alone. October saw a steep rise in water quality complaints from Bronx and Manhattan residents to the city’s environmental protection department, according to city data, compared to the previous month.
DEP attributed the change to the source. Water from the Croton system — and controversial multibillion-dollar Croton filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park — usually accounts for 10 percent of drinking water distributed to neighborhoods throughout the city, DEP told Community Board 8 in an Oct. 12 statement. But that was temporarily increased to around 20 to 30 percent during a shutdown of the Catskill Aqueduct — one of two large aqueducts that provides water from the Catskills — for an infrastructure upgrade expected to last 10 weeks, and reportedly costing $158 million.
DEP told Councilman Fernando Cabrera they were shifting back to the Catskill system, said Greg Faulkner, his chief of staff, Oct. 16. But at that point, more than 200 residents in Croton distribution areas already had complained.
It wasn’t until he learned of DEP’s email to the community board Axelbank heard anything from the department.
“There was no public outreach that I was aware of,” Axelbank said.
While the unpleasant surprise wasn’t “overly dramatic,” Axelbank added, “I think it speaks to the fact that nobody got any notice, and all of a sudden, the water tasted different. Given the history of New York City’s water, it never occurred to me that the water would taste bad.”
But residents need not fret too much.
Croton water “is 100 percent safe,” DEP spokesman Edward Timbers said.
Still, it’s different from reservoirs in the Catskills in several ways, DEP said, including geology around the Croton system, which allows the water to pick up more naturally occurring minerals, meaning the water can be a bit harder. Some people actually prefer this taste, although residents like Axelbank tell a different story.
Furthermore, Croton water is filtered, DEP said, meaning it passes through very fine sand that removes impurities from the water.
“There are no issues with our water supply,” DEP said, adding the department performs hundreds of tests each day in the reservoir, the aqueduct, the treatment plant, and at nearly 1,000 street-side sampling stations throughout the city.
Samples are delivered to DEP’s laboratories where scientists analyze them, Timbers said, while robotic monitoring buoys deployed on reservoirs provide an additional 1.2 million measurements.
“The data from this extensive scientific analysis, which is far more extensive than required by regulators, demonstrate that the city’s water meets or exceeds all health and safety regulations,” Timbers said.
If residents noticed an “earthy/salty taste,” DEP said, it’s from a chemical change in the water, “but not one that poses any threat to health.”
Even if the changes imperiled no one, the crux of the issue seems to be residents were caught utterly off-guard. For Axelbank, the odd taste lasted four days, and has since gone back to normal. Still, he would’ve preferred better communication from DEP, as would others east and south of Van Cortlandt Village, including of the Fordham Hill Oval co-op near Sedgwick Avenue, who aired complaints at a meeting with the Croton Facility Monitoring Committee on Oct. 16.
Although Robert Fanuzzi didn’t notice any huge difference in his own tap water, several residents complained to his group, the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality, about a “distinct change in the color and the smell.”
While DEP’s public statements “sound plausible,” Fanuzzi said, they’re not enough.
“There was no scientist or engineer specialist at (the Oct. 16 meeting) that could speak to the problems of the Croton source,” Fanuzzi said. “On account of public trust, I think we deserve the results of an engineering and scientific investigation of this. I don’t consider this matter over.”
But in addition to restoring trust, it’s also important tap water tastes good, Fanuzzi said, and shouldn’t be unpleasantly aromatic.
“No one should trivialize taste and smell when it comes to water,” the former CB8 chair said. “It’s a matter of quality. When you stand for environmental quality, you also stand for the taste and the smell of your natural resources. We deserve quality water, and that means odorless.”
Greg Faulkner, Cabrera’s chief of staff, echoed residents’ concerns.
“This was not announced,” he said. “They just implemented the change. It’s scary because people’s first reaction, was ‘Oh, no, something’s wrong.’ People might have been more prepared, but to just go to your faucet and drink water and it tastes different — this was just handled really poorly.”
When DEP told Cabrera, as of Oct. 16, they’d be shifting back to the Catskill system, it only heightened concerns.
“How are you able to go back to Catskill when (renovation) was not completed?” Cabrera asked. “They said 10 more weeks.”
In a city renowned for good-tasting tap water, Axelbank hopes that in the future DEP communicates better with residents before effecting any shifts that significantly alter taste and smell.
“You can understand why people would be concerned and not overly reassured when they’re told the water is safe, because it hasn’t always been accurate when they’ve been told that in other municipalities,” he said, referring to the lead issues infamously found in the Flint, Michigan, water supply. “The level of trust between Bronx communities and the DEP, over a period of decades, is not good. They have said one thing and done another.
“I’m not saying that they’re wrong here. I’m just saying that in order to really convince us, they should make a real thorough presentation.”