The news about our water supply on the North Fork grows from bad to worse. In fact, all of Long Island cannot keep up with one groundwater crisis after another, happening literally right under our feet. There is a solution, and it’s time for taking the first steps toward piping water from the Pine Barrens to the rest of Long Island, and taking in revenue to maintain this resource and have plenty left over to stabilize taxes.

The U.S. Geological Survey will shortly set up four test wells in Riverhead Town to track salt water intrusion in North Fork groundwater, in the aquifers where all our drinking water originates. Salt water seeps into the aquifers when fresh water is extracted by wells faster than it is replenished with rainwater. That partly explains our quantity problem.

And the quality problem?

The quality problem with our groundwater is far worse. As science advances with ways to detect pollution and its effects on both youngsters and adults, we have now discovered that most of LI’s untreated groundwater contains “trace amounts” of a cancer causing chemical called 1,4-dioxane. “Trace amounts” seems a calming phrase, but not when it ends up in “finish filtered” drinking water, with the harsh realities of chronic exposure. 1,4-dioxane is an “unregulated organic compound,” and should be limited to no more than 50 parts per billion, according to N.Y. state. Now we learn even at that level, it is a dangerous health threat.

The surprise detection of 1,4-dioxane is just the latest in a series of contaminants that has led to the ever increasing use of “in-line” filters in the water wells of homes as well as public water providers.

The Suffolk County Water Authority is the largest public water supplier on LI. In fact, they are the largest national supplier using 100% groundwater outside of Miami-Dade in Florida, which relies on the Everglades. SCWA, operates 240 separate water supply systems, boasting huge filters at more and more of its well sites, including in Southold Town. Many of these filters are 15 feet high and 12 feet in diameter, each pair filled with $40,000 worth of crushed carbon. Their use of these filters has intensified, many going to double and triple annual change-outs to keep up desperately with consistent increases in contamination and potability standards.

Other water districts suffer a worsening fate. Most public water customers get their water from a well field or pump station that is only a few short miles away. Water transmission lines (aqueducts) are only used to move water for short distances. According to the LI Aquifer Commission’s report of 2012, rainfall recharges our groundwater aquifers in the amount of 300 billion gallons each year. This rainfall blends with surface toxins all across Long Island (except in preserved areas) and seeps into the groundwater, slowly but surely.

Western Suffolk’s groundwater outlook is more severe. And as for the groundwater disaster of Nassau County, virtually every water district spends huge sums of their customers’ money treating contaminated water to make it potable, reaching the point of shoveling against the tide.

Are we to do something about the rising cost of treating increasingly poor quality water? About the unexplained incidents of cancer and other environmentally connected disease? About weakened immune systems suffered by so many of us? About the failure of government once again in seeing the big picture? About pharmaceuticals, hydrocarbons, and personal care products combining in our groundwater to form compounds we cannot measure? About contaminants becoming so strong as to make filtration less and less dependable?

Ever since the undeveloped acres in the Pine Barrens started to be bought up with a specially dedicated, quarter-cent sales tax-funded bonding in 1987, the intention was as a future, rainy day kind of water resource. That rainy day is here in spades. Water drawn from our permanently undeveloped Pine Barrens is free of human-caused contaminates, making it an increasingly cost-attractive alternative to our current groundwater supplies all over LI, including our North Fork. Piping and selling Pine Barrens groundwater will solve enormous public health issues, and will return Suffolk’s investment in preserving the resource all these years, with plenty of dependable income left over to relieve Suffolk taxpayers, if done right.

Let’s study and act on the construction of a pipeline to run 30 miles along the LIE and utility rights-of-way from Yaphank to Plainview, similar to a planned and partially completed SCWA pipeline from Flanders to the North Fork and the existing aqueduct from Amagansett to Montauk. Scrap metal and recycled appliances could provide the ductile iron for this “green” pipeline, which would also contain magnesium for flexibility, and lined with cement. Unlike plastic PVC pipe, such a ductile iron pipeline would be impervious under pressure to penetration from outside contamination.

It will take years to end our dependence on our doomed, decentralized groundwater well sites that are scattered island-wide. But if managed properly, we can realize the great potential of the Pine Barrens as one drinking water source that is at the same time vast, pristine, protected and safe. And on top of that, it could be a goldmine for Suffolk County taxpayers. Time is of the essence. Why do we wait?

 

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg