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School officials ask town to exclude water used for irrigation from calculation of sewer rents, to save $50K-plus annually

Faced with a more than 50 percent increase in sewer charges over the past five years, the Riverhead school district is asking the Riverhead Town Board to exclude water used for irrigation from the town’s calculation of sewer fees for the district.

Sewer usage fees are calculated based on public water consumption — both assessed according to volume, on the theory that what goes in, comes out.

After the school district installed lawn irrigation systems, its water consumption rose significantly. So did its sewer rent.

The district’s sewer bill went from under $100,000 in fiscal year 2012-2013 to more than $158,800 in 2017-2018, according to data presented at the school board meeting last night by Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider.

The increase in water consumption over the past five years is directly related to the recent installation of irrigation systems used to irrigate the schools athletic fields and other properties. Water used to irrigate fields and lawns is not treated by the town’s sewer district, Schneider noted. It would make sense to deduct the water used for irrigation from the volume estimated to flow from district properties to the sewage treatment plant.

In 2017, the district pumped 686,000 gallons of water in January through March, when irrigation systems are not operating, according to data presented by Schneider. By contrast, in the three months from July through September — peak time for lawn irrigation — the district pumped more than 5.2 million gallons of water, Schneider said.

The district has asked the town to set its sewer charges year-round based on its winter water consumption levels, the deputy superintendent said. It sent a letter to the town making that request and is awaiting a response, he said.

“We’re asking the town to give us the same deal they gave Mercy High School in 1991,” said Schneider, referencing a town board resolution adopted July 23, 1991 that established the base sewer rent for Mercy High School “at an amount equal to the water consumption during the months of December, January and February.”

The town board in the resolution directed “that Mercy High School shall not be charged for the sewer usage based on water consumption applied toward irrigation of the sports fields.”

Schneider noted that the cost of installing a separate pump for irrigation purposes would be as high as the additional sewer rents incurred and would not be cost-effective.

If the district’s baseline non-irrigation water consumption is 686,000 gallon, per the 2017 data presented last night, that means the district pumped more than 9 million gallons of water for irrigation purposes in 2017.

The Riverhead Water District has struggled to keep up with the demand for water in the summer months due to the proliferation of irrigation systems, according to town officials. The district, pumping at capacity, has had a hard time filling up water storage tanks that are emptied every morning when irrigation systems turn on. The town has had to impose watering restrictions and alert local fire departments to roll their tanker trucks to fire calls because of water pressure issues.

Most of the water district’s high-volume users are high-density housing developments and the bulk of their consumption is for irrigation, according to data provided by the Town of Riverhead to RiverheadLOCAL in 2016.

In 2016, then-supervisor Sean Walter said new irrigation systems at Riverhead schools and Mercy High School, combined with just one senior community on Middle Road use a quantity of water equal to the output of one of the district’s high-volume wells.

The town since 2010 has invested more than $15 million in upgrades, including wells, pumps and storage tanks, to increase capacity and keep up with ever-growing demand. The construction of some of those upgrades is still underway.

Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website. Email Denise.