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Nitrogen levels in water worsening: Engineer says it’s a ‘canary in a coal mine’

Town Engineer John Cronin (left) and intern Andre Oraseanu explain to the Town Board why action is critical to protecting the Island’s water.

Call it an “issue.” But not a “crisis.” Yet.

That’s the conclusion reached by Town Engineer John Cronin and intern Andre Oraseanu’s research on potable water on Shelter Island presented to the Town Board last week.

The town has already experienced signs of increased nitrate levels in water, most recently at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, where nitrate levels were so high the town was ordered to take action and post signs that the water is not safe.

Mr. Cronin submitted a nine-point plan to the town for dealing with the issue and three parts of the plan are already underway:
• Identify the size of a treatment system to deal with the high nitrate level and determine where it should be installed within the building.
• Identify potential vendors to handle the work.
• Provide information on costs of remediation.

The town is anticipating information on remediation costs sometime this week, Mr. Cronin said.

He noted that this is not the town picking up costs some might think are the responsibility of the church. The town’s nutritional program operates out of the church kitchen where lunches are provided to seniors twice a week, so the undrinkable water makes it a town problem.

In addition to the town program and church activities, the private Shelter Island Early Childhood Learning Center operates in a space in the building’s basement.

Once costs of remediation are determined, there will be discussions about how to pay for the project, Mr. Cronin said.

This year, there’s a project to install a nitrogen-reducing septic system at the American Legion Post that doubles as the town’s Youth Center; the new system will also link to Shelter Island School. Both are so- called “heavy-use” buildings where it’s critical to reduce nitrogen levels. Much of the joint project is being funded with grant money.

Also ongoing is the effort by the Water Quality Improvement Projects Advisory Board to provide money to residents to upgrade private septic systems. While both the town and Suffolk County have been involved in the grant programs, and New York State has now allocated money for that effort, there have been hurdles that have slowed installation of the systems.

Among them is a question of tax bills for money received by grant recipients. Another problem, for some of those most in need of the upgraded systems, is where they find money to pay for the work while they wait for grant repayment. The state is setting up a loan program that could overcome that hurdle.

And still another issue is costs related to a nitrogen-reducing system, but not covered by grant money. That could include, for some homeowners, the need to install a new well to meet the Suffolk County Department of Health Services requirements affecting distance between the placement of the septic system and the well.

Whatever happens with efforts to solve these issues, the town must begin now to aggressively address issues affecting its water supply, according to Mr. Cronin and Mr. Oraseanu.

In some areas of town, it could be 49 years before water would no longer be potable, while throughout the Island, it could be about 100 years, Mr. Oraseanu said. That may sound like a long time, but failure to begin to act now could rapidly reach the point where the problem becomes unfixable, he warned. His statistics are based on data he collected while working for the town last summer and data provided to the town more recently by the Health Department’s Bureau of Drinking Water.

The two men have determined that it took about 83 years to reach the level of nitrates in today’s water, meaning that it took those decades for the water quality to decline from what was an acceptable level in 1935.

At that time, the Island’s population was 1,113 people; the current year-round population is 2,413.

“Since pre-colonial times our population and that of Suffolk County has largely used the drinking water supply aquifer as a sink for wastewater,” according to a report the men presented to the Town Board. “Eventually, a tipping point occurs . . . at a rate that outpaces what the environment can support.”

“We still have time to fix it, but it’s a matter of getting at it,” Mr. Oraseanu said.

“I would definitely not call it a crisis,” Mr. Cronin said.

But he called the results the intern culled from the numbers like “a canary in a coal mine. We know it’s a worsening problem.”