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Focus on water safety sidelined: Several reasons for a ‘pause’ in critical efforts

An important town committee is “in limbo,” according to two members of the Town Board.

Councilman Albert Dickson characterized the Water Quality Improvement Advisory Board (WQI) in those terms at a recent Town Board meeting, and Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams echoed the remark. Both members are the board’s liaisons to the WQI.

Mr. Dickson went further, speaking about the committee’s goal to reduce poisonous nitrates in the Island’s aquifer as something that “we should keep on the front burner before it gets lost.”

Speaking to the Reporter early this week, Mr. Dickson said, “We get wrapped up in some issues that become the dominant focus for a time. But this [water quality] is an issue that can’t be shunted aside.”

Unlike most of Long Island, where there is a public water supply, Islanders are dependent on wells on their properties, and many are poisoned by nitrogen leaking from faulty and/or outdated septic systems.

Mr. Dickson has been a strong advocate for solving the perilous condition of the Island’s drinking water, which has been deemed a “crisis” by several Town Boards. There have been reports of serious problems, especially in the Center, and efforts to resolve issues at the Presbyterian Church, the school, town buildings and the Legion Hall, which is also the town’s youth and recreation center.

Mr. Dickson, and WQI members the Reporter spoke to, said the “limbo” aspect of the committee’s position is not just due to getting lost in the shuffle of other issues before the town, but to the WQI’s rearrangement of priorities on how to remediate the crisis of potable water.

Defining goals

The WQI was established as a result of an addendum to the state’s 1999 Community Preservation Fund (CPF) legislation, which imposes a 2% tax that buyers pay when purchasing East End properties, and is used in turn to purchase open space for preservation. In 2016, the five East End towns, by referendum, were allowed to take up to 20% of the transfer tax funds collected and put them toward water quality improvement projects.

Each municipality was obliged to set up committees to outline goals that would discuss and vet projects to achieve safe, drinkable water. The Island’s WQI was created, and began to solicit residents to apply for grant money to install Innovative Alternative (I/A) septic systems, which drastically reduce nitrates seeping into the aquifer.

Originally, the idea was “to get systems into the ground,” said WQI Chairman James Eklund.

The cost of the state-of-the art septic systems is usually “somewhere north of $25,000,” WQI member Greg Toner said, but state, county and town grants ease that burden on homeowners. Ms. Brach Williams told the Reporter that “the state grants have been $10,000 and the county an additional $10,000. The town’s [contribution] has been up to $15,000.” But, Ms. Brach-Williams added, “Combined grants from the state and county have increased, and the town payout has been less.”

She also noted that the county provided incentives for homeowners to install the system, including $5,000 for residents with low to moderate incomes.

According to Jane Roberts, clerk of the WQI, a total of 55 applications to install I/A systems were approved by the committee and Town Board. Fourteen are completed and functioning and the homeowners have been reimbursed by the various governments. “Right now, WQI is ‘on pause,’ so they have unofficially reviewed 10 that are also awaiting review by the Town Board,” Ms. Roberts said.

The goal of installing systems was achieved early on, Mr. Toner said, but in addition to helping individual homeowners, another focus was to spread the word and allay fears. “We felt it was necessary for neighbor to tell neighbor that they put them in, and everything was fine,” he said. “It was to build confidence that these things were not going to do something weird to your life in the sense of cost.”

A change of direction

Changes in priorities for the WQI were discussed in February by the committee and at a Town Board meeting, one of which was changing the local law that mandates I/A septic systems for new construction or significant expansion of a house. One suggested change to the law that drew the most comment was amending the requirement to install the new systems if there’s been a 50% or more expansion of structures.

Several board members said this could hurt owners of small houses who want to expand.

A week later, at its work session, the board essentially threw in the towel on trying to change the local law on requirements. Strong objections from Councilman Mike Bebon and Ms. Brach-Williams carried the day in the discussion. Mr. Bebon said that the board should wait to make changes until the views of the Water Advisory Committee and the WQI were heard.

New priorities emerged, Mr. Eklund and Mr. Dickson noted, with a focus on the Center, where homes are clustered and public facilities, such as the school, the American Legion Hall and town buildings are located. The Center is also closest to the aquifer, “above our main water supply,” Mr. Eklund said.

It’s also common sense, Mr. Toner said. “We should be looking at the areas that are the most problematic,” he said. “The Center has been identified for quite some time as an area where there are high nitrate levels.”

The committee then put together new evaluation procedures when an application for an I/A system comes in, with several criteria, including where on the Island the applicant is located, the water level in the area, and the kind of system that would be replaced. Homeowners in the Center who apply, Mr. Toner said, go to the head of the line to wait for vetting and the Town Board’s green light, but that process is now stalled.

Mr. Dickson praised the work of the committee. “They did a lot of hard work, especially Greg Toner, to define criteria by which we could really evaluate these applications,” he said. “It took time, energy and effort.”

Other issues to spotlight, the councilman added, were looking at how much in actual dollars the town would receive in CPF funding; looking at other grant funding; and “not just willy-nilly approve I/A installations.”

Mr. Dickson said that the property transfer tax funds coming to the town should be in excellent shape, considering the hot real estate market on Shelter Island. “And I’m hearing from realtors that the first part of next year will be way up,” Mr. Dickson said.

Not going away

The nitrogen in the Island’s drinking water has been described by Town Engineer John Cronin as a problem that at times can be overwhelming. Statistics bear out his analysis.

Suffolk County, at best, can process about 900 applications for nitrogen-reducing Innovative Alternative (I/A) septic systems per year, while in the Center alone, there’s a need for up to 600 to address the problem, Mr. Cronin has reported.

An installer of I/A systems has speculated that 600 systems could be installed in 2.5 years if the county could process the applications. But that would assume a five-day work week putting in a fully functional system each day.

“That would be an ambitious undertaking, if it is even possible,” Mr. Cronin said. “Of course the alternative to installing individual I/A systems is fast adoption of public water,” Mr. Cronin has said, while making it clear he’s not advocating any particular approach to the problem.

A model of the Center’s aquifer, created in the summer of 2018 by the town’s engineering department and enhanced by data received as a result of a Freedom of Information request from Suffolk County’s water test data, indicates the following:

• It would take about 54 nitrogen-reducing septic systems just to “hold the line” on nitrates in the Center, representing the treatment of about 16,000 gallons of sewage per day.

• Approximately 163 I/A septic systems would be needed to reduce Center nitrates by 10%, treating about 49,000 gallons of sewage per day.

• The entire Center would need to convert to nitrogen-reducing systems to regain what’s called the “pastoral” level of less than 3 milligrams per liter of nitrates in the aquifer.

Nearly everyone who spoke to the Reporter mentioned the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic as helping to stall the work of the WQI and shift the Town Board’s focus away from water safety, which was the leading issue confronting the town just a few months ago.

Two years ago, Mr. Dickson voted “no” on an application to build a large house because of water usage by potential residents. It was the only “no” vote on the issue and one of the rare non-unanimous votes by any Town Board. “It comes down to the aquifer,” Mr. Dickson said. “Are we going to take steps to protect it?”

The town is moving to create a Comprehensive Plan, which would include addressing the Island’s water situation. The timeline for implementation of the plan has been set for December 2021.