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Codger’s column: Water Music, second movement

Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “Whiskey is for drinkin’, water is for fightin’,” which was more than enough for Codger to abandon his Friday evening jar for what was billed as “an informational meeting” at Town Hall concerning the Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA) takeover of the West Neck Water District (WNWD) at the behest of the Town Board (TB).

Got those acronyms straight? OK?

Expecting throngs, Codger arrived early. Eventually, there would be only a dozen in the room, all usual suspects, and half that number on Zoom. Town Attorney Steven Kiely’s concern that a public meeting at least two weeks before the 40-year lease between SCWA and the TB was signed would “bring out the pitchforks” was wildly optimistic. Hardly a hoe or a rake.

Kiely was not present, presumably working out details of the deal. There could be another public meeting or perhaps just a TB work session to go over the lease.

Codger rants — Don’t you care about water? Hasn’t anyone seen “Chinatown?” In this April poetry month hasn’t anyone read W.H. Auden’s 1957 poem, “First Things First,” which ends with the line, “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water?”

What was learned last Friday, under the masterful chairing of Lisa Shaw, director general of WNWD, was that the average boost in cost to customers would be 54%, and that would rise with SCWA’s regular annual rate increases along with paying off $1.7 million in infrastructure upgrades, including a new well, new pipes and electrical improvements, presumably to bring the system up to SCWA standards.

“Remember,” said Lisa, “there have been no rate increases in 12 years while the system has been crumbling around us.”

Actually, as previously noted, the WNWD was working last year on a bond issue to fix the crumbles when the TB blind-sided it with the SCWA deal. As Crone says, And here we are.

A satisfyingly high-ranking SCWA representative, Joe Pokorny, deputy chief executive officer for operations, in person breezily assured all that SCWA would be doing only what was necessary and at the lowest costs possible, so “then we all march together.”

Marching with SCWA intrigued Codger. Did that mean no further costs once we’re all in step? Pokorny nodded. But what about this new $80 fee for advanced filtration that SCWA was charging all their customers? Pokorny shrugged that off. Things come up.

Codger can swallow that. Also that SCWA is in the business of distributing people’s water back to them so that conservation (is climate change over?) is not a priority. Pokorny suggested letting the Town pass tougher laws about irrigation and the topping off of pools, then enforce them. Codger is all for that, but good luck on enforcement here.

Codger was not thrilled at paying more for water, probably starting this summer, but as long as Crone handled that bill he could ignore it. He was paddling deeper. He was still unconvinced that the TB had enough of a hand on SCWA’s tiller despite Pokorny’s promise “we’re not here to run roughshod,” or Supervisor Gerry Siller’s presence in the audience, or Deputy Supe Amber Brach-William’s prodigious effort with General Shaw to create the most potable rate structures.

As Siller has warned us, there will be other politicians and other Town Boards and pitchforks with agendas in our future — that’s why, he says, he wants to nail down this deal.

But Shelter Island’s water requires a better defended future, a comprehensive plan not only prudently operated by the technocrats of SCWA with their state-mandated “enabling legislation,” but managed in the best interests of the entire aquifer by the TB and its various water-advising committees and watch-dogged by the WNWD.

Codger thinks it won’t be very long before other neighborhoods on the Island come to SCWA with their cups out. The Center, Montclair Colony, Silver Beach all have well-known water issues. Since there is only one aquifer, we have to learn to share it responsibly. And that’s more than just taking fewer showers and shorter lawn soaks, which is harder to expect with an increasingly entitled population. Enforcement has always been a fantasy on an Island run by folks who are often intimidated by rich second-home owners whose grounds they often maintain.

There’s more to water than drinking it. The current objections to placing a wastewater treatment center under the Klenawicus Airfield may or may not be just an expression of Not-in-My-Backyard but it’s a critical aspect of an integrated water strategy.

As is everything, from the early-stage project to build a community pool to refurbishing the bathrooms at Crescent Beach to the Hay Beach uprising against the Gardiner’s Bay Country Club’s employee housing scheme, which has begot the grassroots Shelter Islanders for Clean Water and Responsible Zoning.

And here we are.