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Suffolk Closeup: A new course for clean water

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The Long Island Commission for Aquifer Protection will hold a meeting next week to consider a “Draft Groundwater Management Plan.” It’s a massive — 321 pages — and major element involving what I’ve been writing about in this space for the past two weeks: the water crisis.

The commission was established in 2013 by passage of legislation in Suffolk and Nassau. Its mission is “to address both quality and quantity issues facing Long Island’s aquifer system, and to advocate for a coordinated regional approach to groundwater resources management.”

The plan opens with a bottom line assessment of our water supply: “The aquifer system that underlies Long Island is the only source of drinking water for Nassau and Suffolk Counties.” And that’s why the EPA “recognized the importance of the groundwater source of Long Island water supply in 1978 by designating it a “Sole Source Aquifer.”

Shelter Island also depends on a sole source aquifer system.

There have been claims through the years — especially by those who support sending wastewater from Long Island out into the ocean, Long Island Sound, bays and rivers — that the underground water table is vast and there’s no need to worry about quantity.

Baloney!

The draft plan notes that “it is estimated that Nassau and Suffolk Counties together have between 60 and 65 trillion gallons of groundwater stored in the aquifer system. However, only 5 percent to 10 percent of this volume is extractable from the aquifers.”

The plan declares: “In addition to its value for drinking and irrigation, groundwater is also the primary source of freshwater in streams, lakes and wetlands, and maintains the saline balance of estuaries. When large volumes of groundwater are withdrawn, the water table is locally depressed and this, in turn, reduces the quantity of groundwater available to discharge to streams and estuaries. Large-scale sewering practices have also reduced groundwater levels and discharge to surface waters.

In some areas of Long Island, groundwater pumping has resulted in saltwater intrusion into the aquifer system and has also impacted streams, ponds and coastal areas that rely on groundwater discharge to sustain them.”

In other words, with sewage treatment plants — including all in Nassau and most of the bigger plants in Suffolk, including the ones in Shelter Island Heights, Greenport and Sag Harbor discharging wastewater through outfall pipes into waterways rather than recharging it back into the ground.

There are consequences.

Forty-plus years ago, Charles Pulaski, conservation chairman of the Suffolk County American Legion, and George A. King, chairman of the Long Island Baymen’s Association, were leaders opposing the outfall design of the Southwest Sewer District. (I wrote extensively about this at the daily Long Island Press and in national media.) The two men warned about the district being designed to send 30 million gallons of wastewater a day into the Atlantic impacting the Carlls River, streams, and on the Great South Bay, changing its salinity by diverting so much freshwater into the ocean.

The bay was the source then of 60 percent of America’s hard clams, a huge fishery that has since collapsed.

The plan states that since Southwest, “the largest sewer district in Suffolk County,” began operations, “base flow in the Carlls River dropped from 27.3 cubic feet per second (cfs) … to 20.5 cfs during the 1968-1983 period,” and the U.S. Geological Survey “predicts that flow will decline to 11.9 cfs by 2020, a 50 percent loss of its pre [sewer] development base flow.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is now pushing for an expansion of the Southwest Sewer District and piping wastewater from the massive Ronkonkoma Hub project over to it and, through its Bergen Point Treatment Plant, sending even more millions of gallons of wastewater daily into the ocean.

The plan puts a spotlight on reuse of treated wastewater. “Throughout Long Island, water reuse has great potential to reduce pumping demand on the groundwater system for non-potable purposes,” it says. It points to last year’s redirection of 350,000 gallons a day of treated wastewater from the Riverhead Sewer Treatment Plant for irrigation at the county’s adjoining golf course.

It says, “Suffolk County has identified 26 golf courses that are within one-half mile of a sewage treatment plant. Use of treated effluent from all these plants … for golf course irrigation could conserve millions of gallons of groundwater annually.” It also cites “industrial reuse of treated sewage effluent … For example, the Port Jefferson Sewage Treatment Plant is adjacent to the PSEG powerplant. Using treated wastewater to cool the plant rather than utilizing water from Port Jefferson Harbor, as is the current practice, could have positive impacts on the ecosystem of the harbor.”

The plan, which is available at the commission’s website at liaquifercommission.com/ calls for an “islandwide water reuse feasibility study which assesses the technical, logistical, financial and social dimensions of water reuse so as to provide a roadmap and blueprint for its implementation island-wide.”

That’s the course we need to be on.