It took yet another study, but now Southold joins the rest of the East End in getting the increasingly disturbing message that our water consumption is not sustainable. And that town’s Water Conservation Committee, together with one of their major water suppliers, the Suffolk Water Authority, report that a big part of the problem is irrigation of lawns and farms.

As far back as 1964, the U.S. Department of Interior strongly recommended that Southold, covering most of the North Fork, use a maximum of 2.4 million gallons per year from its below-ground aquifer. They arrived at this figure by analyzing what can be drawn from the aquifer and what recharge of rainwater can replace it. Exceed that annual figure, they warned, and salt water will flow into the underground fresh water supply. When it comes to potable water, as with the rest of Long Island, the aquifer is basically all that Southold has.

Saltwater intrusion, of course, makes fresh water impossible to drink or use for irrigation, including for agriculture. When we consider that agriculture and the second-home “industry” are this region’s economic mainstays, we appreciate how much is at stake. And our year-round population faces this growing threat as well.

Now along comes a new study that changes none of this. It does, however, serve to quantify how severe the problem has and will become. In this analysis, the Boston-based engineering firm of CDM Smith concludes that Southold’s water table, by the year 2030, will fall more deeply underground by 40 feet, when water consumption will reach an unsustainable 1.7 billion gallons annually.

When the below-ground fresh water table drops, “hydrostatic” pressure, which keeps out the surrounding salt water, drops with it. It’s already happening in neighboring Riverhead Town, whose water district warns and pleads repeatedly for the public’s cooperation to cut back on consumption, or risk salt water contaminating the district’s well source.

Taking a broader view, Southold’s and Riverhead’s water miseries have come to be the new normal in virtually community across Long Island. For years, Long Island’s public officials and environmentalists rejoiced in our good fortune in having underground aquifers as compared to the reservoir system of neighboring New York City. NYC’s open air reservoirs, prone to evaporation, far more slowly refill from rain and surface streams and springs, and can easily be polluted. In drought periods, their water levels drop considerably. In fact, dwindling supplies of potable water from all sources has become a worldwide issue.

These days, however, Long Island’s aquifers present their shortcomings as never before, with all activities above ground impacting water quality beneath. Adding to the problem is how neighboring NYC now uses their once-abandoned well sites which they had placed right at the Nassau border to pump the aquifers 24/7. Nassau does the same with wells on its border with Suffolk.

All through these scenarios, public officials, whom we look to for problem-solving, lack the political will to deal with it. Yes, they study and study and study again. Studies give the calming impression that something is being done. But when it comes to the meaningful legislation, tough regulations, and truly punitive rates for excessive water consumption that all these studies urge us to enact, all we get is chit-chat.

Those in leadership positions have to step up to the plate and put a real cost on water use. Private wells dramatically reduce the water table in their own way, as does any public well site. Ordinances that seriously limit lawn irrigation need to be proposed, scheduled for public hearings and adopted. Irrigation in sun-drenched fields, when sprayed water is mostly lost to evaporation, has to stop. Yes, it’s an unwelcome intrusion of government in our lives, but who else can do it? Reliance on community cooperation has utterly failed. And the time for further studies is over.

And while reducing our water footprint starts someday to be taken seriously by the private consumer, let’s also start and implement a regional plan to tap into the Pine Barrens. We could sell that pristine water resource, in a sustainable way, to the rest of water-stressed Long Island. Rates could be structured so that there is one for Suffolk County residents, who paid with taxes to set up the Pine Barrens preserve to begin with, and a higher rate for Nassau.

Again, only government is available to build the infrastructure of Pine Barrens well sites, pipelines and pump stations. But rather than a repeat of the ill-fated Southwest Sewer District, the last major construction project undertaken by Suffolk County, this Pine Barrens project has to be done right.

Note that the Southwest Sewer District scandal, with its corruption of bid-rigging and huge cost overruns, all happened in the construction phase. The management phase of the Southwest Sewer District has been relatively successful. So a referendum of the Suffolk voters must be required to approve each construction phase of a Pine Barrens water project, from bids, to contracts, to bonding of construction, in stages, with scrutinizing reports from objective sources available to the public. This is a do-able solution. There is even a cost-saving way to construct a Pine Barrens pipeline with recyclable materials that will protect water quality, fully explained in an earlier column.

The standard, piecemeal for-profit water services and private wells, here and all over Long Island, have run their course. They served us well in their heyday, but the time is long passed where convenience has to give way to common sense. All the accumulated studies, as well as common sense, set the only logical course for us: update water quality regulations, raise public awareness on what is at risk, legislate to conserve water quantity, and sustainably utilize the Pine Barrens water resources. The agenda is as clear as it is compelling, but when it comes to planning and managing our water resources, hopefully the wellspring of foresight and political courage among our leaders hasn’t dried up.

This story is free to read thanks in part to the generous support of readers like you. Keep local news free. Become a member today.

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