End the water war now

“The conspiracy theorists are beginning to get my attention,” Supervisor Scott Russell said earlier this week. The topic isn’t hard to guess. It’s the never-ending fight over the Suffolk County Water Authority’s avowed plan to install three miles of 12-inch water mains along Main Road in Orient. “I can’t figure out why they’re rushing to spend close to $4 million to bring water to a community that doesn’t want it,” the supervisor said.

Mr. Russell speaks by inference to the belief shared by many in Orient and in Town Hall that there’s something in the water war that just doesn’t add up; that there’s something beyond the authority’s lofty talk of a benevolent desire to share good water with all. What could be driving its stubborn refusal to take no for an answer?

Yes, the SCWA is a public benefit corporation, but the majority of its directors are past politicos appointed by present day politicos. Its board consists of two former county executives (one from each party), two former county legislators and a current plumbers’ union president. With politics being the art of the deal, it’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that there’s an arrangement behind all this; simply put, that somebody promised something to somebody.

Congressman Tim Bishop’s well-meaning yet clumsy attempt to broker a peace certainly didn’t help to erase the perception that all is not quite kosher. Earlier this week Mr. Bishop announced that the authority would hold the Orient pipeline in abeyance, provided the town takes over responsibility for providing water to the area. The supervisor was quick to renounce that report, saying the town wouldn’t create an Orient water district unless the people there called for one. “The SCWA is basically saying ‘Let us put in a 12-inch water main or do it yourself,’â” said the supervisor.

The congressman, who was asked by the town to intercede on its behalf, later said his press release had been “imprecise” and that the authority can shed its responsibility for serving the Browns Hills community only if another qualified entity steps in.

Could that be where this is headed? Mr. Russell reported he had an “emergency” meeting with Browns Hills residents on Monday and that they were willing to reassume responsibility for their small, closed water distribution system. There are several ways to do that, including creating a separate taxing district to finance the maintenance of the existing in-home treatment systems. That would leave the authority with no interests east of the causeway. The supervisor said he’s also received a letter from authority CEO Stephen Jones asking for a meeting to resolve the issue.

Going into that session, the town has made its position quite clear. It refused to amend its water map to accommodate water main expansion and further indicated that the authority must seek additional wetlands permits before the digging can begin. That puts the authority in the uncomfortable position of either bringing in the construction crews, and with them an all-new court fight, or pursuing a strategic withdrawal from Browns Hills and its Orient expansion plans. They’d be wise to choose the latter.

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