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Man with a plan: Engineer presents ‘roadmap’ for pure water

Town Engineer John Cronin, presenting a 17-point “Pure Water Action Plan” to the Town Board at its Tuesday work session, told members that it was the first “concerted effort to start looking more carefully at water issues.”

Mr. Cronin credited Supervisor Gary Gerth for inspiring and leading the effort to consolidate water issues in one place and have a “roadmap” toward solutions.

The document will be adopted into the town’s Comprehensive Plan as an amendment, Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr. said, “to give it permanence and weight.”

Covering everything from optimizing “pumping operations for wells located near shoreline areas to minimize saltwater intrusion,” to funding groundwater monitoring, regulating work involving groundwater at construction sites and modifying existing irrigation laws, many of the points made in the overall plan are to obtain solid information. Without it, Mr. Cronin said, actions by officials are misguided at best.

“If you understand what is happening in the aquifer, you can make decisions about what to do on the ground above it,” Mr. Cronin said.

One key point is ascertaining how much water is pumped from the aquifer in the summer to water lawns and gardens. Mr. Cronin said that every intern he’s employed to study the water situation here has been baffled that there is no metering system for irrigation.

“We currently have no way of knowing how many gallons of water are pumped per minute for irrigation in areas where irrigation is being used,” Mr. Cronin said.

He quoted an astonishing statistic that the Suffolk County Water Authority presented after it had taken over Dering Harbor’s water system. The county found that 38 residences in Dering Harbor were using 38,000 gallons of water per day in the summer. “That’s an extraordinary amount,” Mr. Cronin said.

Metering has come up in the past before the Town Board, but inaction maintained the status quo. Asked by Councilman Jim Colligan if he was in favor of meters, Mr. Cronin said he was, but added that legislation doesn’t have to be “punitive. It would start out as informational, so if a meter is in place on irrigation equipment, we’d have an idea in the summer how many gallons of water are being used.”

Now, he added, “It’s just a guess.”

On meters as well as other points in the overall plan, Mr. Cronin emphasized that, “People are doing things in the absence of understanding,” and not deliberately “doing things to harm the aquifer.”

Several points in the plan cover well testing, which is crucial to understand what steps can be taken to remediate contaminated water, the engineer said. Getting information from Suffolk County’s tests of water quality on Shelter Island required a Freedom of Information request, Mr. Cronin said, and the county, concerned about privacy of individuals, would not name names or specific addresses, but agreed to give information about conditions on certain streets.

He added that it was understandable people would prefer to remain anonymous to protect real estate values.

Town Assessor Craig Wood said his office has “not seen real estate values affected” by water issues since potential buyers know to expect negative reports.

On mandating advanced nitrogen-reducing septic systems, Mr. Cronin said it’s not likely the county legislature will enact legislation. Unlike the East End, there are public sewers in many parts of western Suffolk, so there’s little incentive to pass a law that would mainly benefit the East End. He noted it was up to Southampton, East Hampton, Southold and Shelter Island to find the “political will” to legislate on septic systems.

The issue of taking county water as opposed to the Island’s system of wells was discussed. Public water is “not the end-all and be-all,” Mr. Cronin said, and that “we have something small and manageable here.”

Mr. Gerth agreed. “Public water won’t bail us out,” he said.

At the end of the presentation, Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams, agreeing with her colleagues that the 17-point document should be incorporated into the Comprehensive Plan, cautioned that it should not be an end but a beginning.

She asked that the plan be discussed periodically and members “continue to address the points,” because “adopting a plan is like a ‘Hey, us!’ kind of thing.”

“Like shoving it in the closet,” Councilman Paul Shepherd said.

“Exactly,” Ms. Brach-Williams said.