The patched trench on Peconic Bay Boulevard in Laurel, Town of Southold yesterday. Photo: Peter Blasl

The Suffolk County Water Authority’s groundbreaking in Laurel last week on an eight-mile pipeline to deliver public water to the North Fork wasn’t a groundbreaking at all, a water authority spokesperson told RiverheadLOCAL this week.

On March 23, water authority Chairperson Patrick Halpin, the authority’s CEO Jeff Szabo and Deputy CEO for Operations Joseph Pokorny gathered at the corner of Laurel Lane and Peconic Bay Boulevard in Laurel with Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission Executive Director Judy Jacobsen, State DEC Deputy Regional Director Rob Calarco and Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell to pose for photos adjacent to an open trench on Peconic Bay Boulevard containing brand-new water main, with crews and heavy equipment at work in the background.

The roughly 500 feet of water main installed on Peconic Bay Boulevard in the Town of Southold, appears intended to connect the water authority’s existing water main in the area to the new transmission line, which is proposed to head north on Laurel Lane from the boulevard in the Town of Riverhead, according to a water authority proposed map of the transmission line’s route.

“Last week’s announcement was a ceremonial kickoff for the multi-year transmission line project,” SCWA spokesperson Tim Motz said in an email Tuesday morning.

“We’re planning to dedicate approximately $5 million to the transmission line in our new fiscal year beginning June 1,” he said. “This infusion of funding was the primary driver of the last week’s announcement.”

Russell said in an interview yesterday it was his understanding work was now underway on the transmission line.

Southold Town residents would be the principal beneficiaries of the pipeline, a 24-inch main that the water authority plans to run from Flanders Road to its Laurel Lake pump station and 2 million gallon concrete reservoir. The water authority already supplies water to some homes in Southold Town, relying on a network of wells pumping from an imperiled shallow aquifer, which has nitrates, salt-water intrusion and capacity problems.

“The enormous $35 million dollar project, the largest in the Authority’s 75+ year history, will move pristine drinking water from where the Suffolk County Water Authority has a surplus to where it’s needed most, Long Island’s North Fork. Over 10,000 customers will be impacted by this capital project,” the water authority said in a March 23 press release issued after the press conference at the site. SCWA intends to complete the infrastructure project by 2030, according to the authority’s most recent strategic plan states.

While SCWA spokesperson Motz said Tuesday that the North Fork transmission line project is not yet underway — despite last week’s announcement of the groundbreaking and photo op — he told the East End Beacon in September that the water authority is “currently working on the plans, permits and easement through the county park at Indian Island. So it’s definitely moving along while we wait to hear about potential grant funding. And we are moving forward with this with or without grant funding.”

Water authority has not yet applied for permits from Riverhead Town

The Southold Town supervisor said yesterday water authority officials at last week’s press conference told him “they were waiting for road-opening permits from the Town of Riverhead.”

“They have not applied to the highway department for any permits or even asked about it,” Riverhead Highway Superintendent Mike Zaleski said on Monday.

The highway superintendent issues road-opening permits, pursuant to town code. The permits require application fees and performance bonds.

SCWA’s plans call for the pipeline to traverse the eastern portion of the Riverhead Town, with much of the planned eight-mile route along Riverhead Town roads.

Other Riverhead officials made similar statements. The town has no records relating to the transmission line project, according to the town’s response to a RiverheadLOCAL document request made pursuant to the State Freedom of Information Act.

“We’ve had no communication from the water authority about this,” Riverhead Town Attorney Erik Howard said. He said he checked with the clerk, the highway department and the planning department before responding to RiverheadLOCAL’s document request.

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said she was surprised to learn of the groundbreaking from media reports last week. The town has been in close communication with the water authority in recent months, while working together to bring public water to an area of Manorville in the southwest corner of Riverhead Town, near the border with Brookhaven. Water authority officials had plenty of opportunity to let Riverhead know this project was imminent, Aguiar said.

Also, Aguiar noted, the water authority sends all 10 town supervisors a weekly “current project memo,” intended, according to the memo, to make sure local officials know about “all significant SCWA projects occurring within your municipality.” The North Fork transmission line has never been mentioned in the memo, Aguiar said. She produced the two most recent SCWA weekly project memos, dated March 13 and March 20. Neither mentioned the transmission line planned to come through Riverhead.

Riverhead Town will insist on environmental review, may seek lead agency status

But notice of the project is more than a courtesy, according to the Riverhead town attorney. Howard said the water authority has obligations under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) to provide the town notice of the project.

All agencies of government at the state, county, and local level are required to comply with SEQRA. “All ‘discretionary’ decisions of an agency to approve, fund, or directly undertake an action that may affect the environment are subject to review under SEQR,” according to the DEC’s “SEQR Handbook,” a publication that explains the review process.

Review under SEQRA should begin “as early as possible in an agency’s planning of an action it is proposing,” the handbook states. The “review should begin as soon as the principal features of a proposed action and its environmental impacts can be reasonably identified.”

SCWA has not sent Riverhead Town, Southold Town or the State DEC any notices about the project pursuant to the State Environmental Quality Review Act, according to officials.

“DEC has not received a notice of coordinated review from SCWA,” DEC said in an email late Tuesday afternoon.

But if the proposed action is on the state’s list of Type II actions, it is not subject to review under SEQRA. These actions have been “determined by the state not to have a significant adverse impact on the environment or have been otherwise precluded from review under SEQR,” according to the handbook.

On the state’s Type II list is the “extension of utility distribution facilities, including gas, electric, telephone, cable, water and sewer connections to render service in approved subdivisions or in connection with any action on this list.” The other actions on the list. View the list here.

“They can try to thread that needle,” said Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End. The question turns on the requirement that the connections will “render service in approved subdivisions,” he said.

That’s a significant limitation, DeLuca said. The purpose of that limitation has to do with the many impacts public water mains have on communities where mains are installed. Water mains can induce development in undeveloped areas. And development always comes with impacts of its own: on the natural environment, schools and roads, for example. These are the things that are studied through the SEQRA process, which aims to devise mitigation measures for negative impacts.

“They still have to do something and say it’s a Type II action,” DeLuca said. “They have to make some effort to render some determination. It sounds like, [the water authority] hasn’t even done that.”

Requests to the water authority on Monday for copies of the completed environmental assessment form for the project, notice of coordinated review or any other SEQRA document were not fulfilled.

The water authority spokesperson deferred answering questions posed Monday about the agency’s SEQR record for the pipeline until Tuesday, to allow him a chance to speak with the agency lawyer who handles SEQRA issues. On Tuesday, the spokesperson did not say the water authority had determined the project to be a Type II action. “Our SEQRA review for the transmission line is underway,” he said in an email.

DeLuca’s organization in December of 1984 (then called the Group for the South Fork) successfully sued to obtain an injunction to prevent SCWA from installing just under six miles of water main in the Town of East Hampton. The town subsequently challenged SCWA’s declaration of lead agency — lead agency status confers the ability to substantially control the review process — and the State DEC commissioner, in whom SEQRA vests the authority to decide lead-agency disputes, ruled in favor of the town.

“It is clear that the location of the anticipated impacts will be primarily in the Town of East Hampton,” then-DEC Commissioner Henry Williams said in his decision. “This includes the direct physical impacts from project construction…” he wrote.

Impacts of construction are in the forefront of Riverhead officials’ minds.

“We’ve been researching this,” the Riverhead town attorney said in an interview Tuesday.

“We are discussing seeking lead agency status because of impacts to the town — the road opening permits, the proximity to wetlands. Typically that would go through our Conservation Advisory Council,” Howard said.

The proposed route along Hubbard Avenue, Meeting House Creek Road and Peconic Bay Boulevard — a heavily trafficked east-west route at certain times of year — passes over or close to several creeks and tributaries in the Peconic Bay estuary.

“We believe putting the transmission line in Main Road would be much more preferable,” Howard said. “The boulevard route is very backwards, a much longer route to get to where you need to go,” he said. “Has (the Main Road) alternative even been evaluated?” he asked.

“Riverhead is ready to do whatever it takes to get the Town of Riverhead’s voice heard in this process,” Howard said. “That’s what we intend to do.”

Questions asked about the source of the water for the North Fork

The path the water main will take is just one component of the process.

“Where’s the water coming from and how much are they pumping?” Jamesport resident Barbara Blass said.

The water authority has not announced the source of the water it will pump through the North Fork transmission line to the Town of Southold.

The water authority’s Deputy CEO Pokorny said the pipeline will ultimately transport about 6,000 gallons per minute, according to a March 23 Newsday article about the groundbreaking event.

That rate of flow adds up to more than 8 million gallons per day.

Riverhead Water District Superintendent Frank Mancini said he believes SCWA would need to develop new wells to supply that volume of water to North Fork pipeline.

North Fork County Legislator Al Krupski questioned the source of the water. “Where’s it coming from? Where’s the clean water the they’re actually bringing to the North Fork? I’m sorry but I would assume that SEQRA would have to be done by now,” Krupski said in an interview yesterday.

Krupski, a former Southold council member who is running for Southold Town supervisor this year — Russell is not seeking re-election — cautioned against a town giving up local control.

“This goes back to the governor’s proposed housing plan. You know, local control is critical, because local officials are responsible for the kind of actions that affect everybody’s future,” Krupski said. “So no, you can’t give up local control and SEQRA was supposed to help protect against someone doing something without, at the very least, proper notice and to consider all the impacts to the community, that’s what SEQRA is for,” Krupski said.

Krupski said he was surprised to hear the water authority spokesperson denied the project was actually not underway, because that is how it was presented in the water authority press released. “And I’m surprised SEQRA wasn’t done,” he said.

Aguiar, as Riverhead Town supervisor, is a member of the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission, along with the supervisors of Southampton and Brookhaven and a representative of the State Commissioner of Environmental Conservation. The water supply for the North Fork pipeline has not come before the commission since she became a member in 2020, she said.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, an environmental advocacy group that has fought to preserve the Long Island’s Central Pine Barrens region since the late 1980s, including the passage of the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act, which protected more than 100,000 acres of pine bine barrens from development.

Preservation of the pine barrens was always about “a focus on protecting the pine barrens ecosystem and the aquifer,” Amper said in an interview yesterday.

“It was not intended to provide well fields to run public water to the North Fork,” Amper said. “This is a very serious concern — no question in my mind,” he said, noting the aquifer that sits beneath the pine barrens is not limitless.

“How much water will be withdrawn? How much can be sustained? I don’t feel we’re getting accurate information,” Amper said.

“You’ll notice we weren’t there last week,” he said.

Water mains inevitably bring more development, Amper said. “We didn’t work to preserve the pine barrens to enable more development.”

Editor’s note: This article has been amended to correct the misidentification of a road name at the intersection where the March 23 press conference took place. It is Laurel Lane, not Love Lane.

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