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New environmental group coming to your door: Goal is to create a groundswell for action

There’s a knock on your door and a neighbor wants to talk to you about water. It’s a new initiative organized by five groups concerned there’s insufficient action to match what most agree is the Island’s most critical issue.

Representatives of a new organization, Shelter Islanders for Clean Water, will be visiting Island front doors presenting a petition that the signers will pledge to do all they can to improve water quality.

The new group is supported by The Nature Conservancy, the Group for the East End, Defend H2O, the Peconic Baykeeper and the Shelter Island Association. If enough people endorse the pledge, the group believes it will be successful in getting town government to devote more grant money to offset costs of new state-of-the-art I/A (Innovative/Alternative) septic systems. In addition to getting signatures on the pledge that will be presented to the Town Board, the group wants to assist property owners in securing grants that can cover up to 90% of costs of having an I/A system installed, and also help in a public relations campaign through in-person statements at Town Board meetings and communications via letters and emails.

Islanders know their water comes from individual wells, but don’t always recognize that what goes into the ground through aged septic systems is pumped back up into their drinking water, said Media Relations Manager May Yeung.

Some money has been dedicated to grants to upgrade systems. But in the past year, the money for grants has been limited and leaders of the environmental groups are pressing to have that addressed.

Islanders like to believe they are unique and in some ways they are, The Nature Conservancy’s Kevin McDonald said. But there are similarities with communities on Cape Cod, around the Chesapeake Bay, Florida and Maryland, that have demonstrated the way to clean water success, he said.

I/A septic systems reduce the nitrogen levels in water, but there’s evidence that leaching fields that filter the nitrates also help mitigate pharmaceuticals and other contaminants that threaten Island water, he said.

“Ten years from now, when Shelter Island’s bays and harbors no longer suffer from an annual onslaught of harmful algal blooms and instead are thriving, let it be said that in the summer of 2021, the residents of Shelter Island and its leadership rose to the moment to finally address the critical threats to the Island’s drinking water and bays,” Mr. McDonald  said.

This is not a political movement, said Shelter Island Association President Gordon Gooding. The Association includes members from neighborhood groups around the Island and there was general agreement that it could be instrumental in spreading the word about this initiative, he said. Its members will be at the Farmer’s Market on the grounds of the Shelter Island Historical Society Saturday, Aug. 7, It will afford an opportunity to speak with people about the effort and provide information about how to proceed.

“The whole issue is really to have a plan,” Mr. Gooding said. He was hoping a plan would come from the Comprehensive Plan group, but that effort fell apart several weeks ago..

Mr. Gooding  appreciates the efforts of the Water Advisory Committee taking steps toward improving water quality. But the need is so critical, there needs to be a “water czar,” he said.

“This effort is about clarifying misconceptions and increasing awareness starting at the grassroots level,” Mr. Gooding said. “We have an important opportunity here to immediately improve our drinking water and the health of Peconic Bay” that will protect marine life.

The Island has dedicated volunteers who have identified and prioritized needs, said Group for the East End President Bob DeLuca. It’s positioned to be in the forefront of clean water planning, he added.

“Situated at the very heart of the Peconic Estuary, no other East End community is more vulnerable to water quality issues,” said Peter Topping, Executive Director of the Peconic Baykeeper. The community must act now to protect drinking water and aquatic ecosystems for future generations, he said.

“Climate change is giving rise to monumental environmental changes for the Peconic Bay ecosystem,” said Defend H2O founder and President Kevin McAllister. “There’s never been a more urgent time to minimize the adverse effects of sewage discharges seeping into the estuary,” he said.