Irrigation panel discussed delaying decision until October

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Consultant John Benvegna told the Irrigation Committee this fall that he doesn’t think automatic irrigation systems have much effect on the aquifer.

Just a month before the Irrigation Committee can offer recommendations to the Town Board, members are sorting out conflicting information.

The committee’s hired consultant has told them the estimated number of existing automatic irrigation systems — even if that number were to hit 200 — has little impact on the state of the Island’s aquifer. John Benvegna,   a consultant working out of the White Plains office of Connecticut-based Leggette, Brashears & Graham Brashears & Graham, did warn that use of such a system could affect neighbors’ wells in sensitive areas. At the same time, he said maintenance of green lawns helps to hold water that might otherwise drain into waterways rather than the aquifer.

The committee was set up in response to a Town Board-imposed moratorium on a law set to kick in last September 1 regulating in-ground irrigation systems on the Island. Passed originally in 2003, the law banned the installation of new systems to prevent droughts, but grandfathered in systems already in place. The law stipulated that by September 2013 all systems would have to be inoperable. Coming up to the deadline in August and hearing some heated exchanges, the board voted for the moratorium to further study the issue.

Another question to be answered as the committee heads into 2014 concerns the existing ban on collecting rainwater runoff from roofs. The original thought was that collecting the runoff water was keeping it from reaching the aquifer. Instead, Mr. Benvegna advised that allowing the collection of rainwater might be a way of conserving the resource.

Mr. Benvegna acknowledged what Islanders knew from previous studies ­— the aquifer is fragile. That’s what prompted the committee to authorize two new field studies — one this month and a second in the spring — that would reveal critical information about the saline levels in the aquifer.

Committee members agreed that updated field studies are necessary to their making informed recommendations. They acknowledged it would be sometime next spring before results from both studies would be in. But they made no decision on whether to ask the Town Board to delay its May 1 decision about whether or not to implement the irrigation system ban.

Committee members discussed suggesting a decision might better be made on October 1 so as not to hit Islanders with a possible ban just as warm weather is taking hold. But no delay was formalized.

After some conflicting information about whether the Island might have a few small aquifers, and not one, Mr. Benvegna confirmed there is only one aquifer. At the same time, he indicated that water doesn’t flow freely in the aquifer from area to area. In other words, residents who live in the Rams, Silver Beach, West Neck and other sensitive areas weren’t going to derive any benefit from the fact that those in the Center might have an ample water supply.

Does that suggest that if a ban is implemented, it should apply only to the sensitive areas of the Island? That’s unclear — at least in terms of the science. But what is clear is that, politically, it would likely be unpopular to ban the use of automatic irrigation systems in some areas, but not in others. That warning came from former supervisor Hoot Sherman, who early on advised the committee that whatever it decided, it should apply to the entire Island. He learned the hard way back in the 1990s when the Town Board imposed the “Near Shore and Peninsular Overlay District” to protect areas deemed to be of unique importance.

Then there are issues of whether improved technology now makes automatic irrigation systems less wasteful of water resources than they once were. Is it possible that those who water lawns with their hoses use more water than those who have automatic systems?
The general answer appears to be a qualified yes. But the answer comes from those whose business it is to install and maintain automatic systems.

Today’s technology has advanced dramatically from what existed 10 years ago, Stewart Senter told the committee. Mr. Senter operates Automatic Irrigation Design, a leading installer of lawn sprinkler systems in the tri-state area. He estimated that he uses 480 gallons of water a day with his West Neck home system, saying he would be using at least seven times as much if he watered his lawn with a hose.

He has been installing systems for 52 years, he said. He talked about weather-sensitive systems that shut down when it rains and can be reprogrammed via his smartphone.

More recently, irrigation specialist Andy Gray from Gray’s Green Property Management in Southampton upheld Mr. Senter’s view that technology is far more sophisticated than it was 10 years ago. But he said that few owners of the new systems know how to reprogram them and many fail to maintain them on a regular basis.

“In my opinion, irrigation is a luxury,” Mr. Gray told the committee in December.

Committee members comprise a wide spectrum of expertise and have generally worked to put their personal opinions aside and concentrate on fact gathering. But perhaps the most outspoken has been John Hallman, who is also chairman of the town’s Water Advisory Committee.

If Shelter Island fails to curb its water usage, there are areas that will be without water, Mr. Hallman warned his colleagues on the Irrigation Committee. Any area where well readings are below two feet shouldn’t be allowed to do any irrigation, he said.

This month, the Irrigation Committee abandons its every other week meetings in favor of weekly meetings and an anticipated Saturday meeting on a date to be set.