WAC seeks landscaper input on water ban

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | Water Advisory Committee met Monday at Town Hall to discuss a 2012 ban on off-Island Water use.

The Water Advisory Committee is recommending a meeting with its own members, the Town Board and landscapers.

The purpose of the meeting  is to explore alternatives to the September 2012 implementation of a new law banning use of underground irrigation systems without cisterns filled with water from off-island sources.

The recommendation came at a Monday night committee meeting with members expressing a willingness to explore  new technologies that wouldn’t threaten Shelter Island’s tight water supply resulting from its sole-source aquifer.

Shelter Island has only one freshwater aquifer from which to draw its groundwater, since it’s cut off from fresh groundwater inflow from adjacent areas of the East End of Long Island. In addition, Shelter Island is low in topography, resulting in a shallow water table.

Still, that hasn’t stopped some Islanders from lobbying WAC and Town Board members not to implement the ban, according to committee chairman John Hallman.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said about the discussions he anticipates will take place between now and September.

According to the town code, no permits for new irrigation systems were allowed after the Town Board banned them in 2003, except for systems with cisterns fed by off-Island water. All such legally permitted irrigation systems, including those without cisterns that pre-dated the 2003 law, have been allowed to continue in operation to allow owners to amortize their investments. But as of September 1, 2013, no underground irrigation system is allowed except those that were permitted under the 2003 cistern rule.

The law was adopted by the Town Board during a drought, with water tables dropping in the Island’s fragile sole-source aquifer, causing salt-water intrusion in low-lying shoreline areas. Some people’s wells became unreliable during that drought.

“I’m not really in favor” of not implementing the ban that was legislated 10 years ago, but with a delayed start date to this year, Mr. Hallman said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning. “But if there’s new technology, I’m willing to listen,” he said.

A recent Suffolk County study showed that Shelter Island is the only town trying to address possible droughts that could impact its water supply, Mr. Hallman said. He said it’s important to look ahead 50 to even 200 years and act now to assure that future residents will have an adequate clean water supply.

“We don’t want to depend on the Suffolk County Water Authority, if we can take care of our own needs,” he said.

Those who live in the middle of the Island have found well water ample, but those on the coasts are the ones whose wells would be impacted by drought conditions, Mr. Hallman said.

“There will be problems” if nothing is done to protect their water supply, he said.

At a WAC meeting late last year, member Walter Richards told his colleagues he thought the 2003 Town Board did its job in limiting the use of automatic underground irrigation systems. But he wondered if the ban, intended to protect the Island’s sole-source aquifer, was the wisest course of action. He asked for more scientific data for the WAC to rely on in giving any advice to the Town Board on whether to actually implement the ban. He also said he was concerned about how the ban might be enforced.

There are 128 legally licensed underground irrigation systems installed on the Island and about 20 that have no town license, according to Supervisor Jim Dougherty. Most are installed in “the most vulnerable areas” of the Island where drought can lead to saltwater intrusion and wells that fail to deliver potable water, Mr. Dougherty said.

Without inspections, there’s no way to assure that cisterns are being properly used and that they’re doing the job in terms of avoiding the use of groundwater to irrigate lawns and gardens, Mr. Richards said.

Mr. Dougherty, the Town Board’s liaison to the WAC, agreed that the 2003 Town Board — which acted at a time of severe drought and a falling groundwater level — was “visionary in doing what they did.” The current board, he added, is trying to make sure the Island’s water supply remains adequate.

He has been meeting with hydrologist Drew Bennett and members of the WAC to explore today’s situation and seek to determine whether the ban is the best way to assure the Island’s water supply long term.

As soon as the law was passed in 2003, there was a rush among many Islanders with underground irrigation systems to have cisterns installed.

Costs for delivery of a cistern run around $20,000, which does not include unloading, burying, fill removal and gravel installation. The ongoing expense of water delivery from off-Island can reach $30,000 annually for a large property. Cisterns are allowed with proper setbacks and a minimum capacity of 8,000 gallons, according to William Banks, town building inspector and zoning officer.

In early discussions about the pending ban, Councilman Peter Reich said that he hoped not too many residents would  truck in water from off the Island.

“If we’re taking water from a source other than out of the Island’s ground, the water table will rise,” he said. Mr. Reich said he had concerns about increased flooding during wet seasons if too much water was imported.