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Shelter Island water testing shows problems: Town’s action could be limited to remedy

It will surprise no one that preliminary testing of water in the Center has revealed areas of concern because of elevated nitrogen levels. But the data doesn’t show an area “in crisis mode,” Town Engineer Joe Finora told the Water Advisory Committee at its Monday afternoon meeting.

There are limits to what the data reveals, and what it doesn’t, he said. “There are not a lot of surprises here,” and the data is “pretty good,” Mr. Finora said.

At the same time, he said there are “blind spots” — areas not tested because some property owners opted not to participate in the town-sponsored program. What’s more, the testing was on nitrogen levels, ammonia and bacteria. There could be no testing of suspected emerging contaminants.

Even in sectors where tests found elevated levels of nitrates, it doesn’t mean every property in those sectors has levels of concern. That’s because there may be other factors not revealed, but contributing to specific property results. That could include information pertaining to pharmaceuticals affecting water quality but no tests have been done on those.

There could be other factors based on residents’ personal habits that are unknown but could be a factor affecting water quality. In agreeing to the testing, residents were guaranteed in-detail results specific to their properties. But the town would only have access to data by sectors.

The question remains: Given those limits, what use is the data? Mr. Finora said that results alert people in the Center that some of their neighbors have received reports suggesting nitrate levels are higher than what’s considered safe for potable water. That could encourage them to get their own water tested. Some with negative results could seek financial aid from local, county and state governments to offset the cost of installing nitrogen-reducing I/A (Innovative/Alternative) septic systems. That can certainly help to alleviate increases in nitrogen contamination, the engineer said.

WAC member Andrew Chapman asked what can be done to address problem areas and ensure potable water for those whose test results show dangerous nitrate limits. Mr. Finora said he’s not sure that’s a role the town is intended to play. It’s not the town’s function to identify water as good or bad, and he cautioned against defining long-term water quality responses.

WAC members briefly discussed two possibilities — the expensive alternative of providing a public water supply, or employing a “point-of-use” system that is more affordable, but has limits.

Point-of-use systems filter water at the place water is being used; the systems are typically installed at single water connections. The affordability makes this attractive, but among its limits, cited by various sources, is most don’t offer real-time performance monitoring.

As for public water systems, it would take between 25% and 50% of a concentrated group of neighbors to bring in a company, such as the Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA), to provide access to potable water.

Varying circumstances dictate percentages needed, and although the SCWA manages systems for Dering Harbor and the West Neck Water District, it can be costly, and a solution long-disparaged by many Islanders. Even though SCWA is not a county agency, many have viewed it as the county interfering with their local authority.

“We’re not going to solve these problems,” Mr. Grand said. “We’re just going to mitigate them.”

Salt water intrusion

Silver Beach residents Lew and Lois Corbett came to the WAC meeting Monday to seek help with water they said has a bad odor and taste. Mr. Corbett said the water used to be fine, but has deteriorated and he believes salt water intrusion into his well is the culprit. Both said many of their neighbors share their concerns and fear a major storm would destroy their wells.

If their existing well is destroyed, there is nowhere on their property for another one to be situated. The Corbetts asked about bringing in SCWA to ensure potable water to their area.

Testing for water intrusion is different from the test for nitrates, Mr. Grand said. There is a provision in the Town Code for placing a well on town-owned land to serve a house or houses where an onsite well can’t be located, Mr. Finora noted. But Mr. Chapman said that before looking for solutions, there’s a need to get a handle on what the problem is.

WAC member Lisa Shaw said testing should be done by the town. For the moment, all the WAC could do was to tell the couple to speak with neighbors about the problem and gauge their interest in exploring a solution, while the committee seeks information about whether the town can become involved in helping the neighbors.