Tucked away in a recent report on the quality of Suffolk’s water is a striking image: a map showing in years how much time it takes for rainwater to get in the ground and reach eastern Long Island’s bays, streams, and harbors. The graphic is meaningful in that it illustrates just how long it takes for contaminants to move from one point to another, as well as the time it takes for pollution-reduction efforts to be reflected in surface water quality.
For regional planners and elected officials, the map and the document from which it comes — the Suffolk Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan — make for a sobering reminder of the challenges ahead in protecting marine ecosystems and drinking water.
For some time now, private organizations, like the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, Peconic Baykeeper, Nature Conservancy, and Group for the East End, have been raising the alarm, but responses, particularly in East Hampton Town, have been wanting. This may be because the town’s leaders have other priorities, lack understanding of the scale of the risks, or have little willingness to take them on. Even longer term, rising sea level is predicted to reduce supplies of potable waters on both the North and South Forks.
Fortunately, the crisis is not imminent; the county report indicates that groundwater will remain adequate until 2030. But two decades can come and go all too quickly. And in some coastal locations, the demand for water may exceed the limited and shallow freshwater aquifer more rapidly than in other areas of the East End.
Adding to a sense of urgency is the report’s finding that tests have shown increasing levels of contaminants — nitrates, volatile organic compounds, and pesticides — over the last two decades. The study’s authors recommend continued implementation of groundwater quality regulations, new rules to reduce the impact of future development, improving and monitoring wastewater from existing houses and businesses, and, perhaps most important, open space protection. This recommendation is described in the report as the most effective means of protecting ground and surface waters. No news there, but a welcome reminder.
Immediate testing and protections for the roughly 28 percent of Suffolk residents who get water from private wells is suggested. Also on a to-be-considered list are a county law mandating odd-even lawn watering days, mandating sensors that can shut off landscape irrigation when it rains, tiered billing rates to encourage conservation, and other water-wise measures. The study’s authors call for Suffolk to commit funding for the staff and technical resources necessary to protect ground and surface waters for future generations.
Unfortunately, East Hampton Town appears to be wading in a groundwater problem of its own. Its septic wastewater treatment plant on Springs-Fireplace Road has been cited by the state for discharge violations. As the town board moves to correct this, board members are likely to become more focused than they have been on water quality, maybe even taking the time to sit down and read the county report and take stock of its recommendations.
Groundwater may move gradually, but government can be even slower. This is an issue that cannot wait for another day or a different political or economic climate. The time for constructive, effective steps on water protection for the long term is now.