Featured Story

Water worries: A special report

JULIE LANE PHOTO Thom Milton has chaired the Irrigation Committee for the past 11 months.

Thom Milton has chaired the Irrigation Committee for the past 11 months.

This is the final installment of a three-part special report on water issues on Shelter Island.

What started as a trickle became a flood.

The initial charge to the town’s Irrigation Committee appeared simple enough in September 2013: investigate how many automatic irrigation (sprinkler) systems exist on the Island and what their impact is on the Island’s aquifer. It looked like a relatively straightforward task.


The investigation surged into complexity, taking on a life of its own, as volunteers on the panel from varied backgrounds and interests began exploring the multiple ways water, including the lack of it and the quality of it, affects life on Shelter Island.

Once it was determined that 109 permits had been issued for irrigation systems and that up to 100 might be running without permits, it fell to the committee’s consulting hydrogeologist, John Benvegna, to determine the impact on what is considered a very limited amount of water here.

Mr. Benvegna plowed his way through reports filed with the town during the past 40 years, including the 2013 Watershed Management Plan drafted by environmental consultants Nelson, Pope & Voorhis in Melville, and a number of earlier reports dealing with the town’s aquifer. His report to the committee analyzed earlier findings and included recent field tests he conducted in January and June.

Conclusion? There is no evidence that existing irrigation systems have any adverse impact on groundwater resources.

The Irrigation Committee, meanwhile, heard from experts discussing the latest technology in automatic systems to determine if those that existed in 2003 were antiquated and consumed more water than those employing the latest technology.

They concluded that technology is much improved, but that there’s no such things as a “set it and forget it” system, as many are marketed.

Identifying problems may escape the attention of property owners until a problem becomes serious. Besides the Heights and West Neck Water districts, for example, other areas aren’t metered. Property owners may not recognize a sudden jump in water consumption before their wells become salted or other problems develop. Hiring others to tend lawns may not be effective — there’s no licensing requirement for the Island that ensures proper knowledge of irrigation systems.

What’s more, thanks to the 2003 legislation, those with systems were allowed to continue to operate them during the past 11 years, but restricted from upgrading to employ improved technology. Lion Zust, a former member of the Irrigation Committee, estimated that upgraded systems could save 40 to 60 percent of the amount of water used by old systems.

Of the many questions that have been posed during the life of the committee, two dominated discussions about the Island’s water supply:

•    Does Shelter Island have a single aquifer?

•    If an outright ban or restrictions on use of irrigation systems is implemented, should it be Island-wide?

Mr. Benvegna’s research put to rest any debate — there is only a single aquifer. But because of geological formations, a thick layer of clay is present in waterways throughout the town, so water doesn’t flow freely from elevated areas to low lying areas. That means water that appears to be plentiful in the Center and the Heights isn’t going to help those who live in the Rams, Silver Beach or other low-lying areas.

Inequality of water flow has prompted debate among committee members with Chairman Thom Milton, a lawyer, arguing that imposing restrictions in areas where there isn’t a problem could result in lawsuits.

But members Mary Wilson and John Hallman — she’s the town’s building permits coordinator and he’s chairman of the Water Advisory Committee — argued that a one-size-fits-all solution is the only way to go.

Mr. Hallman maintains the greatest crisis might not exist today or even several years from now. He’s worried about the Island not having enough water 50 or more years from now if people don’t become cautious about its use now.

Former Supervisor Hoot Sherman, who was in office when restricting actions in some areas but not in others was implemented, warned the committee not to go that route because such a decision would haunt the Town Board forever.

From Mr. Hallman’s perspective, an Island-wide ban should have been imposed back in 2003, because it would be only a matter of time before more Islanders end up with salted wells.

Conversely, landscapers Walter Richards and Fred Hyatt argue that because there have been few droughts and no permanent problems over a more than 40-year period, maybe no action should be taken to change current policies.

Still, Mr. Richards has led the way in suggesting specific minimum requirements for existing irrigation systems and, if allowed by Town Board action, any new systems that might be installed.

With regard to water quality, the committee heard from experts about fertilizers and pesticides possibly affecting the water we use every day. But Mr. Richards and Mr. Hyatt point out there are state and county restrictions on what can and can’t be used, while acknowledging it’s possible to purchase some of the banned products.

Separately, Town Engineer John Cronin has been outspoken about the dangers of nitrogen levels affecting the water, largely resulting from aging septic systems.

Looking at effects of water quality resulting from use of irrigation systems, the committee focused on more frequent checks of chloride levels in test wells, critical to water being potable.

The committee started out by looking at the local issue. But soon it was discussing global implications, receiving a report from a researcher at Stony Brook University on the effect of global warming, connecting climate change to severe weather and rising tides to salted wells.

Even skeptics of global warming know that in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, there were Island wells that became salted, at least temporarily, by water rising over the top.

The report called for an improved model to track the loss or gain of potable water, including surface topological features and the intersection of ponds with the water table to reflect shoreline movement. It should also incorporate a water quality component, “since one of the primary sources of contamination on Shelter Island is effluent from septic tanks,” the report said. “Because these sources are closer to the water table than surface contaminants, a rising water table may cause a substantial increase in water pollution thereby further reducing the effective volume of potable water.”

Enforcement of any restrictions the town might impose is troubling for the committee, more so for the Town Board, which will have to determine possible permit fees and fines. Money isn’t freely flowing for a new enforcement officer and other town departments are running from even the thought of extra work.

The Building Department is already backed up with work, as Building Permits Coordinator Wilson has repeatedly told the committee, and the police don’t have the time to be inspecting irrigation systems, said Mr. Richards, a town police officer.

As the committee was putting the finishing touches on its report, it had found consensus on a number of issues, but concluded that others would have to be resolved by the Town Board, which will be holding its own public discussions on the topics.

Perhaps most critical is Mr. Milton’s conclusion that could emerge as a prescient warning: “Irrigation is just one thing that affects water use overall.”

In other words, a drop in the bucket to what the future holds for the relationship of water and Shelter Island.