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Could Cape May hold key to Island’s salted water?

JULIE LANE PHOTO Hofstra student Anastasia Yankopoulos outlined her study of Shelter Island water issues for the Town Board awhile back, comparing problems and possible solutions to Cape May, New Jersey.
Hofstra student Anastasia Yankopoulos outlined her study of Shelter Island water issues for the Town Board earlier this summer, comparing problems and possible solutions to Cape May, New Jersey.

What can town officials learn from Cape May, New Jersey about improving water quality?

That’s what a Hofstra University graduate student set out to determine in researching her master’s degree thesis. She brought the results to the attention of the Town Board earlier this summer.

Shelter Island and the New Jersey beach community have relatively low year-round populations compared to the summer months. Shelter Island has about 2,400 year-round residents, growing to 10,000 to 15,000 during the summer. Cape May goes from about 5,000 year-round residents visitors to 45,000  — including visitors — in the summer.

Shelter Island, Anastasia Yankopoulos told the board, has faced water emergencies, but has to date relied only on “flawed solutions.”

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has long tracked water quantity on the Island, only occasionally focusing on water quality, but officials have been trying to remedy that for the past few years by engaging the USGS to update and expand water quality studies.

At issue here are many factors, but most prominent among them are salinization and high levels of nitrates in many Island areas.

Ms. Yankopoulos showed that on a typical summer day, 750,000 gallons of wastewater is produced on the Island, most of which enters private septic systems untreated.

In the Heights, about 50,000 gallons are treated and piped to a channel between the Island and Greenport. The rest of the septic system effluent enters the aquifer that supplies drinking water.

“Understanding the capabilities desalination holds, and how it can be achieved the most effectively, are vital for Shelter Island residents,” Ms. Yankopoulos said. “Shelter Island can have fresh water with ease and affordability.”

Aside from money, the only obstruction is failure to acknowledge evidence that desalination is the path toward clean water, she said, and that’s where Cape May comes in.

The New Jersey community has addressed saltwater intrusion by installing a desalination plant. While expensive, Ms. Yankopoulos said, it might be a solution for Shelter Island.

The cost of a plant can be $5 million with another $5 million for necessary infrastructure of pipes.

Ms. Yankopoulos set out to determine if that’s a solution for the Island and did so through a combination of efforts:

• A survey of residents about their views on water quality on the Island.

• Stakeholder focus groups.

• A small scale water quality study.

• A comparative case study with Cape May.

• Communication with members of the Town Board.

• A review of the feasibility of a desalination plant and other possible solutions.

Noting the seasonality of the probability and the cost of a desalination plant, Mr. Cronin said it would be more likely that the band-aid solutions used to date would have to continue.

Ms. Yankopoulos sees a desalination plant for the Island as a three-step process over a seven-year period starting with  a period devoted to building a plant on town-owned land. Then, desalination of water would be done and water could be delivered around the Island by truck. The final step would be installing pipes to run from the plant to properties around the Island.

To make it as cost effective as possible, water would be pulled from the aquifer, not the surrounding waters, since it costs less to desalinate brackish water from the aquifer, Ms. Yankopoulos said.

Comparing the cost of water run through the desalination plant, Ms. Yankopoulos said she estimated it would cost Islanders $1.60 to $2 per 1,000 gallons as compared with $1.81 to $2.72 per 1,000 gallons that it would cost for Suffolk Country Water Authority.

“The results of the research indicates that a desalination plant is feasible but might be difficult to implement,” Ms. Yankopoulos said.

Mr. Cronin told her Islanders are resistant to change.

“Water has been called the ‘defining crisis of the 21st century,’” Ms. Yankopoulos wrote in her thesis. 

It’s expected to become scarce around the world, and the situation is particularly critical in areas where there are already inadequate sources or where those water sources are impaired.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Yankopoulos has found that the Island is in need of solutions to deal with its water situation as global warming increases, and water quality will continue to degrade if the situation is ignored.

The increased nitrate levels are being addressed, at least in part, by encouraging residents and business owners to have their septic systems tested to determine if they would benefit from installing new nitrogen-reducing systems, at least partially financed through Suffolk County and/or Shelter Island Town grants.