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Island’s precious resource under review: Second in a two-part series on water systems

Groundwater under Shelter Island is a limited resource. Of the three aquifers that the Island can draw upon, only the Upper Glacial aquifer remains usable. The other two aquifers are saline. Across Shelter Island, residents draw water from their own wells, constituting 87% of water pumpage, or from one of the water systems that have been established to serve their areas.

Heights Property Owners Corporation (HPOC)

According to HPOC General Manager Stella Lagudis, the corporation has been supplying public water and sewer services to buildings in the Heights since 1880. “Today, our system serves 175 homes and 20 commercial connections,” she said.

With four wells, a 100,000-gallon high tank and 2 and 3/4 miles of water mains and connections, the system has three tiers of pricing for its customers. Residential users pay the lowest rate, followed by businesses like the hardware store with low demand for water. The highest tier applies to major users like the Yacht Club.

Although the water system is metered, fees are not set by usage. Rather, each building is charged according to the number of “water features” it contains, such as a kitchen, full bath, half-bath, hot tub or pool. Although the system is separate from the Town of Shelter Island, its property owners must observe town regulations, e.g., pools must be filled by trucked-in water and irrigation restrictions apply when imposed.

HPOC has licensed operators to maintain the systems for water and wastewater. “They usually back each other up,” said Ms. Lagudis, “but with the pandemic, I assigned them to stay on separate wells, so there was no chance of cross-contamination.”

A development that has been discussed for some time is the potential to use Heights wastewater to irrigate the Shelter Island Country Club golf course. Currently, the effluent is discharged into the bay after it’s treated, “where it’s flushed out quickly,” said Ms. Lagudis. HPOC has tried to be forward thinking, she said, about ways the wastewater could be used to recharge the aquifer.

Last week, HPOC and the Town signed an agreement with an engineering firm to conduct a feasibility study of different options to accomplish this, one of which would be the plan to irrigate Goat Hill.

On an ongoing basis, Ms. Lagudis said HPOC faces three challenges: One is that regulations change all the time, so even if they are compliant with testing requirements, they must continually test for new contaminants that are added to testing lists.

Second, the system needs to be able to evolve, replacing aging infrastructure as needed. Since the Corporation is private, they can’t issue public bonds to finance improvements, so they collect assessments and put them in a capital fund. “We try to be pro-active and stay on top of it, not waiting for something to wear out or go wrong,” Ms. Lagudis said. “I have a five-year capital plan.”

The third challenge is contending with leaks and usage. “We read meters every month to identify leaks,” she said. HPOC doesn’t use conservation pricing to discourage excessive usage, but “moral suasion,” she said. Most people respond once they are shown an unusually high meter reading that might indicate a leak, or excessive irrigation, and try to correct the problem. 

Town of Shelter Island

The Town Board has a Water Advisory Committee (WAC), chaired by Councilman Mike Bebon, that has been proactively approaching water issues on the Island. WAC data show that in the aggregate, the Island has plenty of water. There are some issues, however, with water distribution in certain areas, as well as water quality.

Mr. Bebon said the Town is beginning discussions with Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA) to see if there are better ways to manage some of the Island’s water resources. “We’re going to look at different options, including SCWA,” he said.

In the past, some Island residents have expressed concern about SCWA. It’s been said that having SCWA “facilitates development,” said Lisa Shaw, a board member of West Neck Water District. “And we don’t know how much they could raise their rates.”

Mr. Bebon said he had heard of those concerns, but “SCWA is not the same as it used to be years ago.” He said their laboratories are highly advanced, testing water for contaminants far in excess of those required by regulations. “They look for over 240 contaminants.”

WAC clearly states from its assessment of water conditions on the Island, that there is no need to connect to an off-Island water source. “And the Town Board has made clear that is off the table,” Mr. Bebon said.

The Island has an adequate supply of water; the challenge is to manage it better, he said, especially in the peninsulas on the southern part of the Island that have more difficulty accessing fresh water because of saltwater intrusion and sea level rise. Some homeowners in those areas have asked to locate wells on town property as a stopgap measure.

Earlier this year, WAC produced a comprehensive ground and surface water management plan, under the title “One Island — One Water.” The report proposes an integrated management strategy based on a set of “Key Outcomes,” which it acknowledges will take many years to achieve as well as significant investment of public and private funds. It sets out recommendations in increments of five, six to 10 and 11-plus years that includes, among other things, a commitment that there won’t be a need  for off-Island water.

The plan recommends reviewing and possibly revising the water district structures or considering an Island-wide Water Management District. A general streamlining of town committees is called for. “The idea is to manage the water resources holistically,” Mr. Bebon said.

For the protection of surface waters within and surrounding the Island, the plan calls for the town to work with The Nature Conservancy and the Peconic Estuary Partnership to develop a database to track pollutant levels, assist in groundwater management efforts and help with shellfish management and aquaculture activities. Of particular concern is the parasite-induced 2019 bay scallop die-off and identification of appropriate preventive measures for the future.

The full report is available by visiting the town website and clicking through to the Water Advisory Committee to get to the link for the Ground and Surface Water Management Plan.