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Irrigation Committee member questions validity of well tests

JULIE LANE PHOTO | John Hallman said testing results were not valid because of their timing.
JULIE LANE PHOTO | John Hallman said  town well test results were not valid because of their timing.

A member of the Shelter Island Irrigation Committee is questioning the value of new data on chloride levels in area wells.

John Hallman — who is also chairman of the town’s Water Advisory Committee — said at Thursday night’s Irrigation Committee meeting that to get valid data on salted wells on the Island, tests should be conducted at the beginning of June when summer residents and visitors are first arriving on the Island and again at the end of August or beginning of September when they are leaving.

What’s more, the tests should be conducted at wells that are used to pump all summer or test wells very close to irrigation systems, not those that are stagnant and are only used by the United States Geological Survey to gather information on water quantity.

According to Irrigation Committee Chairman Thom Milton, tests conducted by field engineers from Leggette, Brashears & Graham —  a consulting services focused on groundwater data — in January and due to be conducted again in June are aimed at updating studies last done in 1984.

Updated data was needed to counter challenges to any law the Town Board might enact with respect to water use on the Island based on the old numbers, he said. The committee’s charge has been to provide the Town Board with updated information on technology for automatic underground irrigation systems and any other factors that would inform its decision about whether to enforce or abandon a ban on use of the irrigation systems enacted in 2003, but not implemented for 10 years. It was to have taken affect in September 2013, but was delayed pending this committee’s study.

It has become something of a regular thrust and parry between Mr. Milton and Mr. Hallman over whose data provides the best indication of what direction the committee might recommend to the Town Board.

At Thursday night’s meeting it was more of the same as Mr. Hallman objected to the word “hearsay” in minutes of a previous meeting, relating to information Mr. Hallman had shared as a result of his more than 45 years of experience in dealing with water issues on Shelter Island.

Mr. Milton said the use of the word was his, not committee consultant John Benvegna’s, and that he was implying that Mr. Hallman was sharing anecdotal information about salted wells, while Mr. Benvegna needed actual data.

“I’m not going to give you data,” Mr. Hallman said, citing privacy rights of his customers.
“It’s not pitting you against him,” Mr. Milton said about Mr. Hallman’s knowledge and Mr. Benvegna’s call for actual data. “I don’t want to be at war with the Water Advisory Committee.”

“I know there are several houses where they can’t drink the water,” Mr. Hallman said. He also pointed out the dangers of salted wells, saying it poses problems for people with high blood pressure.

“We’ve got to try to protect these people from ruining their water,” Mr. Hallman said. “Let’s protect what we have” so there isn’t “a war over water.”

But is it the town’s responsibility to improve those wells that might be affected by neighbors’ irrigation systems? asked committee member Fred Hyatt. Committee member Walter Richards pointed out that through the years, some problems with water corrected themselves over time and in recent years, despite some dry spells, there hasn’t been a call for restrictions on water use. He has served on the Water Advisory Committee and both he and Mr. Hyatt are landscapers.

The legality of imposing a ban on irrigation systems got some attention, with Mr. Milton advising that whenever a law is passed, the effort must be made to make it as fair as possible. What the Town Board did right 10 years ago was delay implementation of the ban to give those with irrigation systems time to amortize their investments should the ban be imposed.
But Mr. Hyatt questioned whether it would be fair, after someone got a town permit to install a system to take it away from them. If someone got a permit to build a barn, the town wouldn’t tell him 10 years later to take it down, he said.

You need data to show that a change is necessary and not just a feeling that a ban would be a good idea, Mr. Milton, a lawyer, responded. He pointed out that “one-size-fits-all” laws sometimes break down in court if you can’t show that the same restrictions are needed everywhere.

That has been a recurring theme for the committee as information gathered has shown that conserving water in the Center isn’t going to benefit users in the Rams any more than restricting use in the Rams will assure more water in the Center.