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Underfoot and Under-Appreciated

Water, Slipping Though Our Fingers

Underground on Long Island there are vast aquifers filled with water, some closer to the surface and more susceptible to polluting influences, others deep with pristine waters thousands of years old. Water knows no boundaries. The water in the aquifers flows in various directions based on geology, not political boundaries.

And so it flows, underground from village to village, from town to town, from county to county. Water suppliers tap into it, pump it, test it, treat it and send it through pipes into homes and businesses, but paradoxically, it belongs to no one and to all of us. How do we protect it?

At a recent Long Island Water Symposium sponsored by the North Shore Land Alliance and held at the New York Institute of Technology, experts in the field of water management spelled out growing concerns about Long Island’s future water quality and quantity due to population growth, development, pollutants and projected rising sea levels. But the conference covered more than a litany of concerns; it concluded with a call for action from two Long Island legislators, Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel (D-Great Neck) and Assemblyman Steven Englebright (D- East Setauket). Both legislators are proposing that an islandwide, non-political, scientific aquifer management agency be established to carry out basic research on this vital resource and to provide comprehensive planning to ensure protection of the aquifers for years to come. It would define sustainable levels of water extraction and ensure sufficient water for natural systems and ecosystems that depend on adequate aquifer discharges.

There are successful models for this kind of agency already in operation around the country out of necessity because surface water flows from one geopolitical area to another. These are interstate compacts and there are 192 such compacts in the U.S.

For example, the Delaware River Basin Commission formed in 1961 provides this function for New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland and has the United States represented on the commission as well.

Nearly 15 million people rely on the waters from the Delaware River for drinking and industrial use.

The executive director of the commission, Carol Collier, explained that the agency acts as a steward for the river and its tributaries by monitoring water quality, developing and implementing policies to deal with drought and flooding management, resolving interstate disputes through mediation, educating the public about water issues and conservation, integrating environmental and economic needs and basing decisions on sound science.

States without such compacts have made national news in what are termed “water wars.” Georgia, Florida and Alabama are still fighting their water war in court and it was announced this week that Georgia will be paying their new attorney in the matter, $855 an hour for what appears will be a prolonged legal suit.

Both Schimel and Englebright were quick to point out that their proposal is not meant to denigrate the role of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. They acknowledge that funding for the DEC has eroded steadily over the years and that staffing losses, coupled with its broad and vast responsibilities, make it unable to focus on islandwide, long-range water management issues.

Desalination has often been touted as an alternative to water shortages and was considered several years ago by Shelter Island, but Emily Wurth from a consumer advocacy group, Food and Water Watch, emphasized that the process of taking the salt from sea water is a technology that is not only expensive, but an energy guzzler as well.

Desalination is not efficient either. According to Ms. Wurth, desalination reclaims only 60 to 85 percent of brackish water and only 35 to 60 percent of ocean water. The remaining water ends up as brine two to 10 times more concentrated than the source water. The organization urges that communities make an investment in conservation through public education, water suppliers repairing leaking pipes, a major source of clean water wasted, and upgrades in sewer systems. Prevention of pollutants seeping into the water supply means less treatment and lower costs.

She cited cities around the country, Houston, Tampa, and Carlsbad, California, that have faced high expenditures for desalination plants with disappointing results in water production. Currently, Rockland County, NY is in the midst of an environmental review regarding the construction of a desalination plant by a private water company, United Water. The Towns of Ramapo and Stony Point have passed resolutions opposing the plant.

Sarah Newkirk from The Nature Conservancy addressed worries about sea level rises and the impact that would have on Long Island. Current predictions are startling. According to Ms. Newkirk, by the year 2080,  the sea level around Long Island will rise by 4 feet. She stated that “hardening the coastlines” by development and impermeable surfaces makes it impossible for eco-systems to adapt to changing conditions. Coastal wetlands, mangroves, oyster reefs and barrier beaches can in essence “move” over time, but not if coastal areas are paved over. She also talked about the controversial topic of “post-storm re-development.” Should houses that are perched on the seashore and get wiped away by nor’easters be allowed to rebuild? She said, “We should not be making the same stupid planning mistakes twice.”

In terms of providing scientific data for water management, the U.S. Geological Survey is probably the island’s best  and most reliable resource. Christopher Schubert from USGS thinks that nitrates are a top priority for studies about water quality and is concerned about the effects nitrogen run-offs, primarily from fertilizers, are having on our streams, rivers and estuaries on Long Island. While USGS provides valuable scientific information on water resources, it does research, not policy development or regulatory control.

The recommendation from Schimel and Englebright to create an aquifer protection agency should not be confused with proposals to consolidate water districts. Water districts would continue to operate independently, but they would be armed with scientific data, specific to Long Island, to help them in holding polluters accountable and responsible for cleanups, in determining pumping rates coordinated with neighboring districts and bolstering public information campaigns for conservation.

They also recognize that in these economic hard times, many might question the creation of a new agency. Ms. Schimel said, “We can’t afford not to take care of our water. Long Island’s economy depends on it.”

After the meeting, this reporters asked conference organizer and NYIT’s Center for Water Resources Management, Sarah Meyland, about the reaction from water purveyors to this idea. She said, “Today a seed was planted. Let’s see if it takes root.”