This is the first in a two-part series examining the approaches adopted by different parts of the Island to deliver their water supply.
Shelter Island, a 7-by-4 mile piece of land that is only two-thirds inhabited, has a variety of completely separate systems to provide clean water to its residents in different areas. Concerns about conservation as well as water quality are ever present, impacting decisions from building homes to financing new infrastructure.
West Neck Water District
The West Neck Water District serves a small community, including homes along West Neck, Stearns Point and Shore Roads, as well as Behringer Lane and a few on Menantic Road.
The district dates back to the 1960s, when William Payne offered to let neighbors hook up to the water supply at his home on West Neck Road. Problems with mica in the water had made other wells unusable, interfering with the operation of their pumps.
Eventually, in 1994 Mr. Payne turned the water system over to the Town of Shelter Island, at which point the customers were asked whether they would like the system taken over by Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA). They voted instead for “home rule,” and elected a board. Today, the board is made up of five representatives of the customers, now numbering 62 lots within the footprint, according to Lisa Shaw, a board member. Shelter Island’s town supervisor is a liaison between the Town Board and the West Neck Water District’s Water Board. Water expert John Hallman is a paid manager of the system.
According to Ms. Shaw, the district now comprises seven wells, the oldest of which will need to be replaced soon. The district has approval from the Suffolk County Department of Health Services to dig the new well. The cost is estimated to be above $150,000. In the past, the district has taken out a bond to cover the cost of new infrastructure. “We haven’t talked through how to subsidize it,” Ms. Shaw said.
Applications for new West Neck service must be submitted to the town. The Water District charges $3,300 per new service.
The water charges have not increased in 10 years, according to Ms. Shaw. They are on a scale depending on usage, with higher fees at the high end to encourage conservation:
• Less than 14,999 gallons quarterly, $5.50 per 1,000 gallons.
• 15,000 – 29.999 gallons quarterly, $7.25 per 1,000 gallons.
• More than 30,000 gallons quarterly, $9.50 per 1,000 gallons.
An unusual development this year has been the return of second homeowners to the Island in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so water use, typically highest in summer, increased earlier than in previous years.
The district includes the Sunset Beach Hotel and restaurant facility, which is by far the largest customer. The decision not to open the facility this summer will mean a significant water savings, but the loss of their fees will also have a major financial impact on the district. All the financial burdens of operating the District are borne by the customers.
The Village of Dering Harbor recently contracted with the (SCWA) to manage and maintain the water system for its homeowners. Bringing in SCWA was the response of the Village Board to several issues, culminating in a serious water crisis three years ago. According to Board Trustee Patrick Parcells, who spearheaded the water project, the village had previously had one employee, Hap Bowditch, who was responsible for maintaining the system, but didn’t have the resources he needed.
When salt water intrusion became a serious problem, stemming from one of the village’s two wells being dug too deep, the board explored getting additional help. Once the Village signed on with SCWA, Mr. Parcells recommended they hire Mr. Bowditch, who knew the system thoroughly.
“We were concerned for several reasons,” Mr. Parcells said about the previous operations. “The regulatory demands are incredible. And you have to have a person who’s licensed to operate the system.” If Mr. Bowditch had been out sick, he added, they had no one who could step in.
Once they began working with SCWA, the trustees learned that the authority had scientific resources and manpower that they needed to take over the system. The overhaul of the water system eventually included the installation of a new water tank, funded by the state, to be paid off at $15,833 per year for 30 years at zero interest, and meters installed at every home.
Dering Harbor has a total annual budget of about $250,000. In the last year that the village was still operating the system, the cost exceeded $100,000, funded entirely by tax dollars. “And the village had not a nickel for repairs,” Mr. Parcells said, “and no reserve.”
The mayor at that time, Tim Hogue, took issue with that figure, but acknowledged that Mr. Bowditch may have had to put in “ a lot of overtime” when the water problems escalated. He also suggested that the new system was meant to punish or embarrass some residents as being excessive users, motivated by past political tensions in the Village.
Now that meters have been installed at every residence, the board has approved a schedule of user fees. Going forward, the cost of water usage will be entirely funded by users. “Previously, there was no incentive for users to conserve,” Mr. Parcells said.
The installation of meters has helped detect a number of leaks, all of which have now been repaired. Metering also uncovers excessive use that can be caused by homeowners tapping into village water for their private irrigation, which is illegal.
In researching other water districts, Trustee Clora Kelly and Mr. Parcells looked at some as close as the Island’s West Neck Water District, and as far away as Monterey, Calif. While Dering Harbor’s rate is $253.26, the West Neck Water District users pay as much as $462.50 quarterly for use up to 50,000 gallons.
Prior to passing the new water fees, the Board received letters from two residents stating objections. One, Richard Smith, said that the total cost to each resident would be higher than the board was stating, with the “Trustees … breaking costs up into the pieces and burying much of the costs in the Village budget.” Another resident, Kirk Ressler, objected to the infrastructure charges to be borne by all residents, a rate structure he describes as “onerous” and “punitive” when they are combined with the usage fees.
As part of the agreement with SCWA, the village will make capital improvements valued at $1.14 million to the water system. The cost will be spread over 25 years and financed with SCWA, which has a AAA bond rating. The Village will pay $51,125.13 per year for 25 years, at an interest rate of 3.58%. These figures have been supplied to residents in Mr. Parcells’ verbal and written reports on the water plan at the monthly Board meetings.
The objections received by the board cite the highest tier of fees, “conservation rates,” that would only apply to usage above 50,000 gallons quarterly. “No one comes close to that level of usage,” Mr. Parcells said, but the fees are a new tool to discourage illegal use and encourage homeowners to be vigilant about leaks.
Ironically, Mr. Parcells said, “we’re lucky we had so much go wrong at once. We had to find a solution.”