Water Use: Is it Fair?

    Not enough attention has been paid in recent years to groundwater supplies and how we use them on the South Fork. There was a time when land development’s impact on what potentially comes out of the tap was at the top of the agenda locally, but nowadays, perhaps with the spread of so-called public water, interest has faded. Helping put the subject back into public discussion (we hope) was a recent story in The Southampton Press listing the top residential water-consumers in East Hampton and Southampton Towns.
    According to documents obtained from the Suffolk Water Authority, the top South Fork water user was the Ocean Road, Bridgehampton, vacation house owned by Millard Drexler, the head of J. Crew, where 18.4 million gallons went through the pipes last year.
    According to figures cited by the newspaper and provided by the water authority, the average household here uses 160,000 gallons annually. The late Bruce Wasserstein’s Further Lane, East Hampton, spread was the third-thirstiest property, going through 13 million gallons in 2010. The list goes on, citing properties elsewhere on the South Fork, including a surprising number of big water-hogs in Montauk.
    A water authority spokesman said the peak water users were those with geothermal heating and cooling systems in massive houses. Other explanations for the high numbers included landscape irrigation and swimming pools. All of the properties whose apparent excesses were noted in the story get their water from the authority’s street-side mains. These, in turn, are almost entirely supplied by wells sunk into underground accumulations.
    One of the problems with the use of water for landscaping is what happens when it leaves the property. Some is absorbed into the ground — and joins a shallow, subsurface aquifer — and some drains into surface waters, such as streams, ponds, wetlands, and bays. If irrigation runoff is carrying herbicides and pesticides, those, too, are taken along for the ride. Eventually, these contaminants can reach private wells not tied to the water authority, or enter the marine ecosystems.
    According to the last major study of Long Island groundwater, by the Department of the Interior in 1982, every drop of fresh water here comes from precipitation, some recent, some perhaps from thousands of years ago. The levels of consumption released in the water authority documents suggest that some property owners may be taking more than their fair share of a vast — but finite — resource.
    Perhaps some restraint is in order. It may be time for public officials and the various environmental organizations here to take a more active position on water use with an eye toward assuring residents of a long-term, high-quality supply.