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Year in Review: Irrigation debate

REPORTER FILE PHOTO Irrigation Committee member John Hallman has been alone among his colleagues calling for a ban on irrigation systems Island-wide.

REPORTER FILE PHOTO
Irrigation Committee member John Hallman has been alone among his colleagues calling for a ban on irrigation systems Island-wide.

What started as a simple investigation into whether automatic irrigation systems should be banned on Shelter Island has led to a wider and significantly more important subject about water quality.

Those who argued more than a year ago that technology employed in today’s irrigation systems was improved over what existed back in 2003 when an ordinance decreed that systems would be banned as of September 1, 2013, were right. What the Irrigation Committee, which met for 11 months, found is that properly equipped and operated, systems are more efficient than hand watering or using sprinklers.

But thanks to a wider exploration by the committee, and a separate effort by Town Engineer John Cronin, the Island is now focused on the quality of water — everything from what it takes to protect wells from chloride and contaminants to the dangers posed by aging septic systems.

There have been multiple delays since that deadline more than a year ago when the Town Board acknowledged that a decision made back in 2003 had to be re-examined.

The Irrigation Committee listened to a parade of experts — from town-hired consultants to  experts from Cornell Cooperative Extension. They heard from irrigation system installers about the latest in technology and from landscapers about what is and isn’t needed to keep the Island beautiful while still ensuring a flow of potable water from wells.

By the end of the day, most agreed existing automatic irrigation systems could be allowed as long as they were upgraded to reflect more efficient technology. They also recommended that new systems could be allowed, but they should include cisterns filled with water trucked in from off-Island.

The Town Board took a look at the report and slated a public hearing, which clearly indicated it would be back to the drawing board before changes to the existing irrigation law were made.

At that hearing in early October, Irrigation Committee member and Water Advisory Committee Chairman John Hallman, warned of serious trouble ahead if the committee’s recommendations were adopted. He never wavered over the months of meetings in  calling for an end to the use of irrigation systems throughout Shelter Island.

Mr. Hallman’s opinion has been that a critical water shortage might not exist today and probably won’t be an issue in the near future. But the Island must impose water use restrictions or face a day when a crisis arises.

A subcommittee — Councilmen Peter Reich and Paul Shepherd and Town Attorney Laury Dowd — went to work on the recommendations, tweaking, clarifying and adding provisions to deal with violations and general enforcement. At each Town Board work session, there have been discussions about proposed changes.

On January 23, a revised proposal will be the subject of a public hearing to get the new law into place so residents will have ample time to plan for spring watering.

At the same time, there have been ongoing discussions, if little movement yet, on how to deal with aging septic systems that Mr. Cronin maintains seriously threaten water quality.

Suffolk County put forth a plan to make 19 wastewater systems available to residences in an experimental move to determine which of the various systems might work best.

Mr. Cronin had a better idea. He asked County Executive Steve Bellone to consider putting a system at an Island commercial site where it would get a real test of its viability.

Among the sites he has suggested are the Shelter Island Country Club at Goat Hill; Shelter Island School where nitrates have historically been a problem; or any of the various government buildings.

“Piloting such a system in a very environmentally sensitive area such as Shelter Island may help demonstrate the viability of such installations in more strenuous applications,” Mr. Cronin wrote to Mr. Bellone.

But on December 19, Mr. Bellone announced the 19 winners of the house installations, making no mention of any commercial installations.

Still, Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) has recommended rechanneling some of the 2-percent Community Preservation Fund money to clean water projects on the East End. His suggestion has met with mixed reviews.

But at least there is a focus on water quality, when prior attention was focused solely on quantity.

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