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Year in Review: No simple solutions to water improvements

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

For years, Islanders have been concerned about the issue of water quantity, dependent on wells and a fragile aquifer. The concern has led to action, with periods of mandatory water use restrictions.

But town officials soon realized that if they were going to protect the aquifer and ensure potable water, they needed a study of contaminants that is affecting water quality.

The town has spent more than $40,000 over a three-year period to hire United States Geological Survey scientists to sample water and report on findings. But to keep costs down, town officials opted to restrict the sampling to specific contaminants and limited the test sites, concentrating attention on a buildup of nitrates in the water supply.

Water Advisory Committee (WAC) member Greg Toner was quick to tell residents, “We don’t have a Flint, Michigan here.”

At the same time, Mr. Toner made it clear that steps must be taken because nitrates can be harmful to health, especially for infants and pregnant women.

The source of the danger, Mr. Toner said, includes human waste leeching from aged cesspools and septic systems, the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and atmospheric deposition of nitrogen gas from the air.

As  of June 2017 only three sites have been tested with samples taken from a pipe at Crescent Beach, a monitoring well near Menantic and another in the Center.

At Crescent Beach, the sample wasn’t from drinking water or a supply well, but from a pipe punched through the ground into subsurface water.

Businesses in the area, Mr. Toner noted, such as Sunset Beach Hotel, don’t draw their water from the contaminated source, he said.

The other two areas were not active wells, but efforts got underway to monitor the two static wells and compare results from nearby wells where people do draw water.

The Menantic well showed a relatively low level of nitrates, while samples in the Center were well above what is considered a safe nitrate limit.

Restaurants, the school and American Legion Hall are all required to do regular testing to ensure their water is potable, Mr. Toner said.

A project is slated to upgrade both the Legion Hall and school with new nitrogen-reducing septic systems, since those two buildings host many community activities.

The WAC also advised residents to have their own wells tested annually; use bottled water for infants and pregnant women; and consider upgrading their septic systems to the nitrogen-reducing units approved by Suffolk County.

All of the local activity is taking place at a time when Suffolk County is focused on the vast number of aged cesspools and septic systems polluting both drinking water and the waters surrounding Long Island, resulting in fish kills in some areas and health concerns Island-wide.

In line with a Suffolk County program to offer grants to offset the cost of installing the upgraded systems, the town also launched its own program under a new committee — the Water Quality Improvement Projects Advisory Board — charged with setting up a grant program using Community Preservation Funds.

Organizing the procedure has taken about six months, but the first grants recommended by the water quality group have gone to the Town Board for a final approval and it’s expected that installation will begin in early 2018.

The Water Quality Board is expected to recommend money be used to complete a new septic system at Wades Beach and, possibly, to help the Fresh Pond Neighbors Association with its efforts to clean up that body of water.

But the Town Board hasn’t yet moved on a recommendation to require builders of new structures to install the nitrogen-reducing systems. Those wouldn’t be eligible for grant money, but in neighboring towns, the consensus has been those spending for a new house are likely to be able to bear the expense of an upgraded septic system.

Recently, the WAC, at the suggestion of member Ken Pysher, discussed seeking additional money for a baseline study of various contaminants that are affecting the water supply.

That money could come from the 2018 allocation of Community Preservation Fund money.