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Year in Review: Water quality tops town agenda

This week, the Reporter brings you some of the top stories of 2019.

“Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”

A phrase from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” might well have been the fate of Shelter Islanders were it not for recognition not so long ago that the issue was not quantity but quality.

Supervisor Gary Gerth brought a 17-point program to the table and has been working on it  during the past two years. Supervisor-elect Gerry  Siller has a seven-point list of priorities with the top three focused on improvement of water quality.

For years, town officials spent money tracking levels of water in test wells, generally concluding the levels may have gone up or down  requiring some voluntary efforts to conserve.

But just a few years ago, an Irrigation Committee led by Thom Milton began pushing for more attention to water quality even with regular checks on water quality as required by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services at Shelter Island School, the Senior Center and Presbyterian Church that houses the town’s nutrition program.

Remedies were undertaken at the Senior Center. The school was mandated by the Health Department to upgrade one of its three septic systems and has started the process of securing a study to determine the best route to upgrade that system.

By the end of January, high nitrate levels at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church are expected to be remedied now that the Health Department has approved a solution.

All of this work represents only a beginning, since a wider issue of nitrates is pervasive in the Center where Town Engineer John Cronin has warned residents to have their drinking water tested and  infants and pregnant women avoid drinking the water if numbers are anywhere near the maximum of 10 mg. per liter.

Mr. Cronin has taken the lead in outlining a proposal that originally was meant to deal with the problem in several Center buildings — the school, where the proposal would have dealt not just with the one septic system mandated for an upgrade, but all three septic systems that are aged; the Shelter Island Library; the Center Firehouse; and buildings owned by the town including the American Legion Post, Town Hall complex, Police Department and Justice Court.

Grants coordinator Jennifer Higham Messiano suggested linking the Center study with a study that could provide treated sewage from the Heights Property Owners Corporation to irrigate grounds at the Shelter Island Country Club at Goat Hill.

If the grant money is forthcoming, it will help to meet the cost of those studies, but a lot more money would be needed to carry out projects.

Some effort has been underway to encourage upgrading of aged septic systems.The town and county and, most recently, the state have been providing grants to assist homeowners with meeting the costs. That money has been generated by a 2% tax on those purchasing property under the Community Preservation Fund with up to 20% of collected revenues to be used for water quality improvement projects with the balance going to preserve open space.

At the same time, there’s an increasing effort to use more of the water quality money on projects with wider impact, such as improvements in septics at Wade Beach.

Supervisor-elect Siller wants investments in such larger projects, rather than directing the grants to individual homeowners.