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Town Engineer: Water information is power


The town’s elected officials turned once again this week to find ways to solve the water crisis on Shelter Island.

Contaminated drinking water and the creeks and bays poisoned by nitrates have been the prime issues facing the Island for years. The Dougherty administration dedicated time and energy to get ahead of the issue — it was Mr. Dougherty who first called it a crisis — and the Gerth administration has made clean water a priority.

At Tuesday’s Town Board work session, two parts of the ongoing problem were addressed. The first was a presentation by Town Engineer John Cronin on how to get the best information on what’s in the ground and how much water is consumed. Secondly, the board discussed county officials squabbling over taxing grants to homeowners who install pricey state-of-the art septic systems to ensure clean ground water.

Mr. Cronin made the point, as he has in the past, that information is power. Solutions can only be made using correct data, and one key source of information on how much water will be used in newly constructed buildings is hiding in plain sight, Mr. Cronin said.

The New York State Building Code has data on how much water is used in structures based on the number of water-using devices. Mr. Cronin said that when a new house is being considered by town officials, the design professionals making presentations should be asked “what will be the peak demand of water use” in the proposed house.

The engineer also called for better ground water modeling, something he has worked on with interns over the last couple of summers. It’s essential, he told the board, to discover “how the aquifer behaves and how contaminants move through it.”

The discussion moved to metering of water use. Councilman Jim Colligan said meters would be especially effective for home irrigation systems. Mr. Cronin agreed, but said metering is important not for regulation of use, but more as a tool to discover how much water is drawn from the aquifer.

Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams said the most recent East End Supervisors and Mayors Association discussed hitches in the plan to provide grants to homeowners installing nitrogen-reducing septic systems.

Homeowners applying for grants to pay for the systems were recently sent 1099 tax forms by Comptroller John M. Kennedy, a Republican, stating that accepting the grants is income that must be taxed. Mr. Kennedy is challenging Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, this fall, and Mr. Bellone has said Mr. Kennedy must rescind his order to tax homeowners.

With 360,000 septic systems in Suffolk County and 74 percent of the county without sewers, New York State has made it a priority to reduce the nitrogen content in its water. The threat to Suffolk County water is so great that the state has allotted $10 million this year to the county for grants to homeowners to upgrade septic systems.

The state is prepared to provide up to $10,000 per grant recipient, while the county can add up to $20,000. For Island residents, there’s another $15,000 per grant recipient available.

Applicants can’t make a profit on the deal, but potentially could get the entire equipment and installation fully paid.

Ms. Brach-Williams told the board that the supervisors and mayors association called for pressure to be put on the comptroller to roll back the taxation orders.

Town Attorney Bob Destefano Jr. noted there would be “serous repercussions” and “massive tax bills” for Islanders, creating “real problems for real people.”

Councilman Paul Shepherd asked if a lawsuit was in the cards, but Mr. Destefano said that with the April 15 tax filing date looming, litigation would have no affect this year.

Supervisor Gary Gerth suggested a town resolution condemning the comptroller’s action and demanding he change his policy.

In other business: Brett Surerus, one of the organizers of the annual fireworks display at Crescent Beach, told the board that this year’s show will be July 13 at 9:15 p.m. and the rain date will be the following evening.

Mr. Surerus called for donations and volunteers, and suggested those interested go to the Shelter Island Fireworks Facebook and Instagram pages for information, or to call (631) 749-5050.