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The 411 on Island’s H20: A special report

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Soon to be buried, this tank is one way Islander's with salted wells can have potable water.

Soon to be buried, this tank is one way Islander’s with salted wells can have potable water.

The first of a series examining Shelter Island’s water issues.

The Island couple, a man and woman, turned on the tap one hot summer day 30 years ago. But instead of cool, refreshing water flowing out, there was a stream of heavily salted liquid they spit out at the first taste. That’s when they first heard, after speaking to a neighbor, the word “cistern.”

“It has been a godsend,” said the woman.

True, the godsend meant they had to pay for a storage tank to be installed and for delivery of trucked-in water, but it made their house livable. Their underground cistern holds 7,000 gallons and after paying for that first truckload of water, they now replenish it using rain runoff that comes into their gutters. The water has to be filtered and zapped with ultraviolet light and then properly chlorinated to make it potable. But husband and wife agree, it tastes good. And no drinkable water, no life.

Even though the couple has solved their problem they remain conservative about water, using less than 100 gallons per person per day, while the average Shelter Island household uses 175 gallons per person, per day during the summer months, according to H2M, a major Long Island engineering firm.

The couple, by the way, remain unidentified at their request. Water, you see, is a touchy subject on Shelter Island.

The couple’s situation naturally makes them wonder whether those with automatic irrigation systems are overusing a precious resource at the expense of their neighbors’ drinking water. But like many here, they assume that the aquifer below the Island is one large shared bowl of water. It’s not, and several factors keep water flowing from one vast underground pool to another.

What the Town Board-appointed Irrigation Committee has learned from its consultant, John Benvegna, is that many living in low-lying areas — the Rams, Silver Beach, Shorewood — may have problems with salt intrusion into their wells, while those in the Center or the Heights most likely don’t. And no amount of conservation in the higher elevated areas is going to benefit those on the shores.

Diving deeper into the sometimes murky depths of water issues on Shelter Island will reveal many false assumptions, political maneuvering and different strategies to preserve what makes life livable or impossible, all coming to a head last autumn.

It will soon fall to the Town Board to assess the findings of the Irrigation Committee and decide to either implement or abandon a 2003 ban on irrigation systems that was originally supposed to take effect in September 2013.

What brought Shelter Island to this turning point is the experience of people in specific neighborhoods who suffer from the often described “fragile” aquifer on which they depend.

The Island has three separate water districts: Shelter Island Heights, Dering Harbor and West Neck. All three have been courted by the Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA). Yet Islanders have been reluctant suitors to SCWA’s overtures to provide water here.

Many people believe giving the cold shoulder to county water is due to the Island’s fiercely independent spirit. That’s partially true, but a more compelling reason for the rejection has been fears about over-development.

In the early 1990s, an aging Bill Payne decided to sell his West Neck Water System. Yes, not so long ago, one person could own a district on Shelter Island, which boiled down to Mr. Payne supplying, for a price, water from his wells to others.

SCWA made a bid on the water, only to be rebuffed by voters rallying around a cry of “home rule,” with the town taking over the West Neck District.

While it was estimated in the 90s that there was enough water to last the Island 450 years, some coastal areas were already experiencing saltwater intrusion in wells, prompting exploration of ways to protect the water supply. In 2002, Supervisor Art Williams considered a desalinization plant to address the issue of salted wells, but the expense was prohibitive. Even Stephen Jones, head of SCWA, called it “the most expensive alternative” being explored.

Again, there was talk of linking to a water pipeline from North Haven to pump from the SCWA. But Mr. Williams prevailed in his call to drill new wells.

From October 2001 through March 2002, there was a major drought with only a tiny percentage of the usual precipitation recharging the aquifer that feeds the wells. The West Neck Water District took the hardest hit when two of its older wells dried up and the third was cut back to operate at 60 percent capacity.

On August 8, 2002, that pump broke, leaving customers without water. For a few days, SCWA was allowed to truck in water while a new pump was installed. With the pump operational, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services certified the water safe for drinking and West Neck customers bid goodbye to the SCWA.

But the following year, concerns about water persisted, leading to implementation of new guidelines for water use, including the proposed ban on automatic irrigation  systems. But an outright ban was controversial enough that a political decision was made to postpone the implementation date for 10 years, with a kick-in date of September 2013.

That way, those who had invested in irrigation systems could be guaranteed 10 years to amortize that investment.

As the August due date approached last year, Islanders prevailed on the Town Board to determine if systems were better and/or the Island’s water supply was improved.

The board called for a moratorium on the law, and it’s been in effect since, with the Irrigation Committee ready to present the board with its findings this month.

Part II of “Water Worries” will examine strategies to tackle water problems in other communities.