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Town water committee explains test results, advises on safety

JULIE LANE PHOTO Water Advisory Council member Greg Toner shared information with his colleagues Monday night on rising nitrate levels in Shelter Island water.
JULIE LANE PHOTO Water Advisory Council member Greg Toner shared information with his colleagues Monday night on rising nitrate levels in Shelter Island water.

The Water Advisory Committee (WAC) walked a fine line Monday night between informing the public about water safety and not alarming residents about the quality of their water.

Members Greg Toner and Peter Grand shared the responsibilities, with Mr. Toner noting early results of nitrate testing by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and Mr. Grand putting into context what concerns there are and how residents should deal with them.

“We don’t have a Flint, Michigan, here,” Mr. Toner said. But there’s “a lot of confusion at what we’re really looking at by the public,” he added.

“We have a lot of nitrates building up across the Island,” Mr. Grand said. “Everyone should be concerned, but not everybody’s water is bad.”

Nitrates that can be harmful to health, especially for pregnant women and infants, result from a variety of environmental conditions and human activity, Mr. Toner said.

They include human wastes, use of nitrogen based fertilizers and atmospheric deposition of nitrogen gas from the air.

Only three sites have been tested for nitrates so far and they did show “a link to sewage,” Mr. Grand said. Samples were taken from a pipe at Crescent Beach, a monitoring well near Menantic and another in the Center.

At Crescent Beach, the sample came not from a drinking water well, but from a pipe punched through the ground into subsurface water.

“The sample does not directly represent water from an actual supply well,” according to information Mr. Toner provided.

Businesses in the area, such as the Sunset Beach Hotel, do not draw on these sources for their water, Mr. Grand said, by way of assurances to customers.

“The concern is we’re having an impact on the bays,” Mr. Grand said.

What USGS scientists found is septic overflow at Crescent Beach, although there’s no measurement of E Coli or fecal bacteria. He hopes that tides are washing the overflow materials out from shore and an improved septic system at Crescent Beach is planned for this year.

The test wells at Menantic and the Center are both “static,” with no pumping to draw water to the surface. But the WAC is working with the USGS and Town Engineer John Cronin to determine differences in chemical composition between the two static wells used for monitoring water quantity and quality and nearby wells from which people draw water.

The Menantic well showed a relatively low level of nitrates at 2.1 milligams (mg) per liter, well below the maximum level of 10 mg per liter considered safe  by the United States Environmental Protection Agency for potable water. The ammonia level was judged “moderate” by the USGS at 4.35 mg per liter. Two samples taken at the Center well were above the nitrate limit, reading 11.4 mg. and 10.9 mg in the samples.

That’s above what’s considered safe for drinking water, according to the report.

The WAC is informing residents that restaurants, the school and the youth center at the American Legion Hall are required to have their water tested regularly so there is no reason for concern about the potability of water at those sites.

There are several steps the WAC is advising residents to take:
• Have your well tested annually either by a private company or the Suffolk County Department of Health Services
• In households where pregnant women and infants live, use bottled water for drinking and cooking
• Regularly maintain your current septic system, having it pumped out at least every two to three years
• If you have an aged cesspool, consider upgrading to one of the more effective advanced wastewater treatment systems for which some grant money may soon be available to offset costs
Mr. Grand said he would like to see the Town Clerk’s office to ask residents when they get their beach stickers each year if they have had their septic systems inspected and maintenance work done. Many Islanders don’t know anything about maintaining their systems and that would serve as a reminder, he said.

Seeking volunteers
The WAC is hoping some private homeowners who have had their water tested will provide the committee with results. The town has limited funds for on testing and needs more information than it is able to gather. Results from testing during the past 10 years would be helpful.

Residents who may be hesitant to provide such information can submit it crossing out exact addresses and indicating only cross streets so the WAC can identify areas where problems might exist. Results should be sent to Jeanette Flynn, Attention: WAC, P.O. Box 1549, Shelter Island, New York 11964.

Alternatively, they may be emailed to Ms. Flynn at [email protected].