LI Water Woes Need State Help

LI-waterAnother massive fish kill hit the East End last week. The details were remarkably — and distressingly — similar to the first die-off just three weeks ago. A nitrogen-fueled algal bloom ramps up in and around the Peconic River, oxygen levels in the water plummet to zero or near zero, bunker fish swim into the ecosystem and die en masse. And if that’s not bad enough, warming water that depletes oxygen could make the situation even worse.

Something — many things — must change. But this is not a problem with a short-term fix. Reducing nitrogen in the Peconic Estuary will be a long battle. And it’s only one phase of Long Island’s war against nitrogen. A comprehensive study of this watershed, including solutions, is needed, but it’s not enough given the present urgency.

Three weeks ago, as many as 300,000 fish died. Thousands more were killed last week. The smell was awful. People were warned not to touch rotting fish. Riverhead Town has spent thousands of dollars on nets,vacuum trucks and labor to remove as many as possible and bring them to its landfill. Slews of residents and volunteers helped clean up the shoreline after the first event. Is this the future we want?

When will we admit the terrible cost of our zealous pursuit of green lawns,and reduce the pounds of fertilizer we use to make that happen? When you live on a water body like Flanders Bay, rain washes fertilizer right into the bay. Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter says it’s almost a moral obligation for water front residents not to fertilize. He’s right. Everyone else needs to cut back, too.

Everything should be on the table. Riverhead is upgrading its sewage plant, but can its novel strategy of diverting hundreds of thousands of gallons of treated effluent daily to irrigate a local golf course be expanded to other courses and sod farms? Can the sewage district’s borders be expanded into Southampton Town to include thousands of homes in Riverside and Flanders on small lots with old septic systems? Can other parts of the East End be effectively sewered?

All of this takes money and muscle. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who understands Long Island’s nitrogen problem, can provide both. But environmental funding is one area of the state budget that has not been restored since the dark days of 2009. And the federal government should help; the Peconic Estuary is one of 28 federally designated for protection.

The State Department of Environmental Conservation also needs to step up. Other states have programs that document fish kills — number dead, type of fish, and causes — and make the data public. Patterns become obvious, and help dispel distracting arguments that these die-offs are a natural phenomenon, which slows progress.

If the agency needs more money and staff, Cuomo should make that happen. In 1995, then-Gov. George E. Pataki helped forge a historic agreement between New York City and upstate communities to clean up and protect the watershed that provides drinking water to the city. It’s time for Cuomo to exhibit that kind of leadership. We might not be able to stop the next fish kill, but we must do whatever we can to ensure this doesn’t become just another part of life on Long Island.

Water Depletion on Long Island-op ed Newsday

waterThe Nassau County Water Resource Board Must Halt Over-Pumping

Newsday’s [May 18, 2015] New York City shelves reopening of Queens wells that share water with Nassau County article is indeed excellent news for Nassau County. But, just because the City has backed-off, doesn’t mean the County’s water worries are over. They are far from over! The article, and the paper’s subsequent editorial [NYC and wells: Take a clear look, June 1, 2015], point directly at Nassau’s most serious water problem: The continued over-pumping of the aquifer system within the County itself; and this self-inflicted wound has been slowly depleting the system’s limited water supply for well over a decade.

At the Long Island Water Conference‘s 2014 Groundwater Symposium last October, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reported the freshwater-saltwater interface beneath the Island’s shoreline had migrated much further landward than it had originally anticipated. And, when asked “why,” the USGS responded it could provide no reason other than over-pumping the aquifer system. Simply, whether the County and its recently resuscitated Water Resources Board (WRB) want to acknowledge it or not, this continued over-pumping is threatening Nassau’s drinking water supply.

Recent groundwater over-pumping is documented in the County’s 2005 Department of Public Works report: Groundwater Monitoring Program 2000-2003, which discloses Nassau’s water suppliers, on average, pumped 193.5 million gallons per day during these 4 years, while the safe withdrawal maximum was, and still is, 185 gallons a day. Although this difference may seem small, roughly 3 billion gallons were over-pumped each year during this time.

An even more damaging year was 2010, when Nassau’s average pumpage swelled to 203 million gallons per day; amounting to a 6.5 billion gallon deficit during that year. Just like a bank account, aquifer integrity cannot survive large deficits for very long without incurring substantial harm; and, if not corrected immediately, continued deficit pumping will undoubtedly lead to saltwater intrusion along Nassau’s coastal areas, both north and south. This outcome was predicted by much earlier studies; and still, neither the County nor NYS DEC has made any effort to end the chronic hemorrhaging.

The Water Resources Board’s newly enacted charter mandates the Board examine water supplier practices; and not just beyond the County’s borders, but inside them as well. Ironically, the WRB was reinstated in 2014, but only after the County had ignored its own obligation to support vital USGS data collection, having dropped its groundwater monitoring services twice during the preceding 10 years.

Newsday is correct: Nassau must continue to vigilantly monitor the Queens wells situation. But, the County must also get its own house in order. In this regard, the Water Resources Board must act, as it still has several crucial jobs to perform, among them: aggressively curbing water consumption; and crafting the recommendations its charter now mandates. Challenging New York City’s water plan was the right course of action. Now, the County must halt the ongoing water peril that looms from within.

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