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Water Committee promotes fertilizer safety and control

At a recent public forum, Water Quality Improvement Advisory Board (WQI) Chairman James Eklund asked: “Does anyone say they don’t care what kind of water they drink?”

The Water Advisory Committee-sponsored forum on Sept. 28 was focused on fertilizers that can add nitrogen to the water supply. But the concern extends to wastewater from septic systems containing remnants of medications that reach groundwater and filter down to the same aquifer from which you extract your drinking water.

Mr. Eklund pointed out Islanders share everything, and that includes the water supply, so how well people care for their groundwater, and protect the aquifer, is paramount.

The approach should be to, “First, do no harm,” said Tim Purtell, chairman of the Green Options Committee and a member of the Community Preservation Fund Advisory  Committee. Choosing native plantings without fertilizers and pesticides can be more effective than grass, he said.

It’s not the first time the reality of drinking water has been addressed. Years ago, before John Cronin retired as town engineer, he graphically showed how septics were affecting drinking water that residents were extracting from their wells.

Mr. Cronin said there were not only people with aged septic systems contributing to contamination, but some residences, in which owners didn’t know their properties, had no septic systems, and what was flushed down toilets was pouring into the groundwater totally untreated and going to the aquifer.

With an emphasis on the importance of functioning septic systems and, especially, nitrogen-reducing state-of-the-art I/A (Innovative/Alternative) systems in place, the situation will improve.

Groups represented at the forum included the Water Advisory Committee, the WQI (which provides grants to homeowners to reduce the cost of I/A systems), the Conservation Advisory Council, the Green Options Committee, and Jay Card Jr., a representative of Gardiner’s Bay Country Club and one of three residents who are licensed to apply fertilizers on Shelter Island. The other two are Walter Richards and Eric Springer.

Lisa Shaw —  a member of the Water Advisory Committee and chairwoman of the West Neck Water District Board — moderated the discussion. She noted that although there is no conclusive study linking high nitrates with various cancers, there’s “a lot of suspicion “ because in areas where the levels are high, there is a concentration of people suffering with colon, kidney, stomach, thyroid and ovarian cancers

Fertilizers containing nitrogen are often over-used, according to those who are trained and licensed to apply them.

“Do you want to pay for over application?” asked Greg Toner, who serves on both the WQI and the Water Advisory Committee. Some non-licensed yard companies who apply fertilizers are sometimes happy to sell customers more than what is needed.

Mr. Card noted that at the golf course, best practices are to use 0.08 pounds of fertilizer per application and some water is necessary, but not a lot, because a lot of water will simply wash the fertilizer into surrounding water. For that reason, applications shouldn’t occur at times of heavy rain, he said.

Following an exchange of advice to residents, the group turned its attention to how to engage more Islanders in protecting the Island’s water resources. Lynne Weikart, who described herself as “just a homeowner,” encouraged creation of a brochure that could be widely distributed to tell residents the basics of what they need to know.

Another means of outreach to the community, Councilwoman Meg Larsen said, includes use of a new town website that is expected to be online in January and will provide a wide variety of options for people seeking information.

The group agreed to work together to reach out to others so the conversation that has begun last week can continue and expand its reach.

Their aims are to encourage:

• Having a registry of fertilizer applicators who are trained and licensed to properly handle applications.

• Having septic systems inspected and where necessary, upgraded.

• Learning from communities such as Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket on how they have handled similar challenges to what Shelter Island is facing.

From both Ms. Shaw and WAC member Andrew Chapman the conclusion was simple: Accept small steps in the right direction that can add up to ultimate success.