Before any irrigation ban on the Island, studies

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Irrigation specialist Andy Gray from Gray’s Green Property Management in Southampton told the Irrigation Committee on Thursday, Dec. 5, that while controllers have become more sophisticated, he still favors manually operating his own home irrigation system to prevent over watering.

JULIE LANE PHOTO  | Irrigation specialist Andy Gray from Gray’s Green Property Management in Southampton speaking to the Irrigation Committee on Thursday, Dec. 5, in Town Hall.

They’re not quite ready to ask the Town Board to keep holding off on banning irrigation systems on the Island, but Irrigation Committee members appear to be headed in that direction.

They say they need more information.

So the committee has authorized consulting hydrogeologist John Benvegna to conduct two studies related to changes in water levels in the town’s aquifer.

But committee members questioned how they could make recommendations to the Town Board by February 1 — the date by which they’re supposed make a recommendation to the Town Board on whether or not to ban irrigation systems.

Members of the five-person committee, which was formed this summer, say it’s crucial to first have the results of those studies, which would update the 30-year-old information they’ve been working with.

The plan is for Mr. Benvegna to carry out field studies this winter and again next spring. What’s more, the committee is now suggesting that such updated studies might need to be conducted on a more regular basis if Shelter Islanders are to have the information needed to track what’s happening with the aquifer. That it is “fragile” is something mentioned in every study about Shelter Island’s water supply, but whether conditions are becoming better or worse is an issue for which there is no current data.

The committee was hesitant about authorizing the expenditure of about $5,000 per test — costs that would leave the group without any more money — but concluded that without updated information, any recommendations they made would be based on anecdotal observations, not hard facts.

At the time the ban was conceived in 2003 for implementation in September 2013, it was thought that use of irrigation systems was depleting the water supply on the Island, threatening to leave residents without drinking water while others tended to their green lawns.

After a public hearing just before the ban was due to go into effect last September, the Town Board was convinced to delay the ban and assemble the Irrigation Committee to investigate whether changes in technology of irrigation systems might mitigate a need for the ban.

The Town Board  also wanted updated information on the condition of the aquifer.

The idea was to have the matter settled by May 1, 2014, at which point a ban would be enacted or the idea abandoned altogether.

The Shelter Island Association, a civic group that functions to give property owners and residents added say in issues affecting the Island, has provided $21,000 for the committee’s work, and committee chairman Thom Milton said he has spoken to Dering Harbor Mayor and SIA president Timothy Hogue about whether more money might be forthcoming from the association if funds are needed for more field studies.

Mr. Milton is awaiting word back, he said.

The two studies that are costing a total of $10,000 will deplete the committee’s funds.

Even if a ban is enacted, current owners of irrigation systems would be allowed to continue to use them if they have cisterns that are filled with water from off-Island sources.

The difference between the monthly readings the Water Advisory Committee gets through the United States Geological Survey, and what the studies Mr. Benvegna’s crew will conduct is that the consultant will extrapolate information on chloride levels that the USGS testing doesn’t show. In some areas of the Island, salt intrusion is resulting in wells that have had to be replaced because water was no longer potable.

Committee member John Hallman, who also chairs the Water Advisory Committee, expressed some skepticism but ultimately agreed with the others to authorize Mr. Benvegna to move forward with two studies.

Irrigation specialist Andy Gray of Gray’s Greens Property Management in Southampton, who was invited to address the committee, said irrigation system controllers that can function at specific times and respond to weather condition “have come a long way” in the last decade.

The best of them are weather-based, but can be prohibitively expensive, he added.

While Mr. Gray manually operates his own system, he said, few owners would know how to do so.

“In my opinion, irrigation is a luxury; let’s save our drinking water,” Mr. Gray said.

Should the town allow the ongoing use of automatic irrigation systems, he said he would recommend requiring regular maintenance — as often as once a month —to assure that there are no leaks or poorly working heads.

It’s particularly important that properly certified operators maintain systems, he said, estimating the cost of monthly service calls to check that there are no breakdowns at about $95 per visit — more if a problem was found that had to be repaired.

Mr. Grosbard speculated that fewer than 20 percent of the Island’s systems are regularly maintained.

The committee will meet again prior to Christmas, on Thursday, December 19, and then meet regularly in January.