Southold’s future lies in its water supply

04/22/2010 12:00 AM |

The planned pipeline to Orient and the possible pipeline to gargantuan capacity wells located in the Southampton Pine Barrens are examples of the kinds of water utility infrastructure that have potential for severe adverse environmental impacts.

Approximately 50 percent of the North Fork’s water supply has already switched from individual wells to a community water system owned by an unusually complicated type of corporation. The Suffolk County Water Authority is a public benefit corporation specifically enabled by the state as part of the Public Authorities Law. SCWA is also a quasi-municipal corporation attached to Suffolk County, a quasi-not-for-profit corporation with a responsibility to consider the natural interest, and a quasi-business corporation beholden to customers, employees and shareholders.

The Suffolk County Water Authority already operates the largest capacity wells possible in Southold, and already purchases water from much larger capacity wells in Riverhead. SCWA has already acquired an interconnected system of water supply pipes throughout most of Southold Town.

Since 1951, the water authority has operated with the presumption that bigger is better. It appears to be SCWA’s unacknowledged goal to replace all small water supply systems and all individual wells in Suffolk County.

Southold Town has a water map because, unlike Riverhead and western Suffolk County, our natural sources of freshwater are very limited in quantity and vulnerable to pollution. Southold’s hydrogeology contains at least eight separate groundwater flow systems: the center “spine,” Cutchogue, Nassau Point, Greenport, Great Hogs Neck, Orient, Plum Island and Fishers Island. Each flow system has its own aquifer and watershed. These groundwater systems connect to saltwater in the Peconic Estuary and Long Island Sound.

Natural sources of potable water in Southold Town will be renewable only if water usage and recharge are balanced within and between each groundwater flow system and nearby saltwater. Over-consumption of water, by pumping faster than precipitation recharges, will lead to saltwater contamination by lateral intrusion and by vertical upconing, and also lead to pore space compaction, which reduces permeability and water-holding capacity. Gross over-consumption may permanently damage aquifers and estuaries.

There are also issues related to methods and means of treatment and disposal of used water, whether into an aquifer or into salt water. Used water may contain biological and chemical wastes that must be limited, and in some cases eliminated, to avoid microbial and nutrient contamination of fresh ground and salt marine water flow systems.

We must plan to avoid exceeding the natural world’s capacity to replenish, and to avoid polluting, our aquifers. The unplanned transition that has already occurred, from individual wells to the SCWA-owned community water supply system, has already caused, and will continue to cause, significant undocumented environmental impacts. The hydrogeologic nature of Southold Town has already been altered with no reasonable plan.

We can only hope that the potential impacts of a single townwide community water supply system will be studied in connection with Southold 2020, before the infrastructure is constructed in ignorance of law. We can not afford an “as built” review of this one.

Until and unless such required studies are completed, and an “all clear” verdict is rendered, it may be advisable for the town to enact a moratorium on construction of new extensions to community water supply systems infrastructure. But that will not happen unless there is show of public outrage.

Mr. Schwartz is a retired lawyer and website designer. He lives in Cutchogue.