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Protecting Long Island Aquifers

(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part write-up on two different plans both geared toward protecting water resources for Long Island.)


Everyone, water experts, elected officials, environmental groups and an informed public, agrees that aquifers on Long Island that generously provide the lifeblood of water, is an irreplaceable resource, one that must be jealously safeguarded. The big question is, “How?”


There are two different proposals on the table that are aimed toward addressing mounting and shared concerns about Long Island’s water supply. How much do we have? How good is it? How effective are our efforts to protect aquifers? How do we make sure that our great grandchildren have plentiful, pure water?


This article will focus on the points of consensus underlying both plans and will detail components of one plan, a bi-county commission. The other plan, a water compact, will be examined next week.  Both proposals were discussed at a recent League of Women Voters meeting.


According to some water experts, the greatest dangers to our water supply are waste, contamination, mismanagement and...simply taking it for granted. A key component that plays into the equation is spotty, unsustained scientific research on water issues as they pertain to Long Island.


The premier researcher, the United States Geological Survey, is not entirely funded by the federal government. The USGS needs local partners. Cost cutting measures in Nassau and Suffolk Counties have resulted in ending research contracts with the USGS. Without information that can provide solid, reliable information and raise red flags in time, water managers are handicapped in making short-term and long-term decisions.


The demand for water on Long Island continues to grow.


An organization, Water for Long Island, states that an average of 150 billion gallons of water is pumped from our aquifers in a typical year and that we use about 140 gallons per person per day, 40 gallons higher than the national average.


How sustainable is this level of usage? Is anyone seriously looking at the Island as a whole?


Underfoot there are layers of sand, pebbles, and rock left from the last ice age that trapped water and forms the aquifer closest to the surface, the Upper Glacial aquifer. The

Magothy is the largest of Long Island’s aquifers and consists of sand deposits interspersed with clay that contain the water. The Lloyd Aquifer is the deepest, oldest and purest of the aquifers. At its deepest point, it is 1,800 feet below the surface and is underlain by bedrock. 

“Recharge” is a term that refers to the process of replenishing the aquifers.


Rain and snow that fall in the autumn, winter and early spring trickles down through the ground eventually reaching the aquifers. Much of the rain that is falling this summer is evaporating into the warm air and running off into streams, gullies, bays, the Sound and the Atlantic. And during the summer months, our usage skyrockets between 200 and 400 percent over winter usage.


All over the island, contamination plumes from oil spills, pesticides, fertilizers and industrial chemicals creep through the aquifers. Many of these plumes date back to an earlier time when the dumping of chemicals was shrugged off. Too late we learned that these contaminants would have to be removed, some at great cost, before pouring it into our drinking glasses. We are still cleaning up water that was polluted in the last century.


Suffolk County has the added burden of widespread and predominant home septic systems, some of which are inadequate.


Saltwater intrusion is also a major threat to our water supply and is exacerbated by over-pumping.


On Long Island, there are 75 water suppliers. While many are doing an excellent job serving their customers clean water, none of them have the responsibility for the “big” picture of what is happening on a cumulative level on the island. Nor are they in a position to advocate for Long Island water conservation. (New York City is eying our water to help supply them during the construction of their new tunnel to bring water from upstate.)


The Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Health share responsibilities for the production of safe water, but it is well known that DEC as a department has had huge staff cutbacks in the last decade. For example, there is only one engineer at the DEC tracking oil spills for Nassau County. And neither agency is tasked with projecting water supplies against water needs for the future. 


Long Island Commission on Aquifer Protection

Legislation has been introduced in Suffolk County and will be introduced in Nassau County to set up a bi-county temporary commission. The Long Island Commission on

Aquifer Protection (LICAP) would be charged with gathering relevant data on groundwater issues and preparing an aquifer report and a ground water management plan “that should form the scientific underpinning for a yet to be established entity.”


LICAP would be composed of nine members. Permanent members would be: Suffolk Water Authority, the Long Island Water Conference, the Nassau-Suffolk Water Commissioners Association and both counties’ health department representatives. 


Each county executive and each presiding officer for both counties’ legislatures would appoint the other four members, two each. These four appointed members would be required to have some expertise in water matters.


In addition, the county executives and presiding officers, a number of county department heads or their representatives,  and the United States Geologic Survey and the Long Island Groundwater Research Institute would be invited to act as ex-officio members with no voting rights.


All members of the commission would serve without salaries or compensation.


How would this commission be funded? From reading the law, it appears that such a commission will be scrambling for funds. It would be authorized and empowered to

receive and expend public and private funds, including grants, donations, subsidies or “other funding from the federal, state and local governments.”


The commission would be allowed to hire consultants and experts to assist them.


This group would be required to hold one public hearing in each county, every year. And the commission would be required to meet at least 4 times a year.


So, first the commission would be required to prepare a report one year after establishment with annual reports thereafter. Three years after the first report, the commission would be required to release a management plan on a range of water issues.


In a nutshell, this commission would make recommendations, but would not have the ability to implement recommendations nor have the power to enforce them.


It is anticipated that the Nassau County Legislature will take up discussions of the legislation the week of July 15.


Leg. Judi Bosworth is introducing resolutions that she believes would strengthen the bi-county commission’s structure. One resolution would add a minority member of the legislatures to the composition, another would provide funding for the services of USGS and the last one would require an annual report from each respective county’s health department regarding water issues.


Next week, watch for a report on another approach to addressing the conservation of water resources, the Long Island Aquifer Management Compact (LIAMC).