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An analysis of the 48 water districts serving Long Island found “a confusing and widely variable network of costs” that makes it difficult for residents to decipher and understand the true cost of water — and does not provide incentives for conservation.

A report released yesterday by the environmental advocacy group Citizens Campaign for the Environment says the annual cost of water to residential customers on the island varies widely, from $148 for residents in the Greenlawn Water District in Suffolk to $1,124.52 for residents in the New York American Water Company’s service area two (North Shore-Sea Cliff in Nassau County.)

The Riverhead Water District is among the least expensive for residential customers in both L.I. counties, ranking as the 10th least expensive water provider at $333.71 annually for a typical residential customer, according to the analysis. A typical residential customer is one that uses approximately 10,000 gallons of water per month, according to the report. Riverhead last raised its water rates in 2016.

The report initially ranked Riverhead the third least expensive provider on Long Island, but the original analysis did not take into account water district taxes paid by property owners, instead calculating only what a typical residential customer pays in usage fees.

The report will be corrected, Citizens Campaign for the Environment executive director Adrienne Esposito said.

The organization thought compiling data for a comparative analysis of residents’ water costs would be a straightforward task. They were surprised by the report states.

“Many water companies have additional costs on resident’s tax bills, some charge per 1,000 gallons of water, others are calculated by cubic feet of water. Some suppliers have flat costs, others have tiered costs. There are some water districts that do not have water,” according to the document. “A simple question turned into a rigorous investigative and mathematical analysis to determine how water rates differ between districts and communities.”

“It would have been easier to decode the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Esposito quipped.

In addition to assessing the variances in costs, the analysis looked at the factors that influence water rates, including privatization and annual property taxes.

“The public has a right to know about the true and total cost of water,” the organization said in an introduction to the report, titled “What Does Your Water Cost? A compressive analysis of residential water costs on Long Island.” Read full report here.

According to the report, a typical customer of the Suffolk County Water Authority pays $355 per year, including $111.64 annually in service charges. The water authority is by far the largest water provider on the island, serving 1.2 million customers.

The second largest provider on L.I. is the New York American Water company, a private, for-profit company that serves 135,000 customers in Nassau County. It is also has the most expensive water costs of all 48 districts, with annual water costs to residents of between $719 and $1,125 in its three service areas.

The organization advocates for holding Long Island’s drinking water supplies “as a public trust, not sold as a luxury item by private companies.”

All drinking water on Long Island needs to be controlled by public municipalities and priced fairly for all consumers because the public has a right to clean water, CCE says.

CCE recommends consolidation of small water districts with larger ones. Water districts that do not produce their own water — there are eight of them island-wide — and districts serving less than 10,000 people — 15 districts, according to the report — should merge with neighboring water districts, CCE says. Consolidation would reduce costs and ensure water quality.

Understanding water costs helps to incentivize participation in conservation efforts as well as promote behavioral changes to protect water from pollutants, the organization said.

All water districts should establish straightforward water rates in gallons — some presently charge by the cubic foot — and should have clearly identifiable tiers, or rates that increase with greater water use in order to promote conservation, CCE says.

“The tiers should be comprehensible, not based on hard to understand thresholds. Specific rates, tiers, and any additional fees or taxes should be readily available for customers to ascertain in consumer-friendly online information and on their printed bill. Each district should be required to maintain an updated website,” the report says.

CCE says water bills should include a line item which informs people of any taxes placed on their tax bill associated to the cost of water including but not limited to the cost for capital investments and treatment for that district. Separating the capital costs of water without adequately informing consumers misleads the public about the total cost of water, the report says.

Water districts should also implement more tangible incentives to conserve water, CCE says, including adopting separate and higher rates for sprinkler systems to better hold people accountable for this water usage, according to CCE.

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