The water war is over.
Bowing to local opposition, the Suffolk County Water Authority has closed the valve on the $3.8 million Orient water expansion it had planned to finance with federal stimulus money. The announcement came Tuesday after a 50-minute meeting in Congressman Tim Bishop’s Coram office that included town officials, authority representatives and two Orient residents.
“It’s been made pretty clear from the residents out there that they don’t want this,” Jim Gaughran, chairman of the authority’s board of directors, said in an interview following the meeting. “We get a lot of calls from people asking for the pipeline, but it makes absolutely no sense for the town and the water authority to continue to fight over this.”
And yet there’s still a chance for the authority and town to continue the dispute. Despite the chairman’s comments that the pipeline project is dead, the authority continues to seek the town wetlands permit required before the installation could commence. A hearing on that application before the Town Trustees will take place in Town Hall next Wednesday, July 21.
“The water authority needs to be prepared in case the town has a change of heart and wants clean water for Orient,” said Jeff Szabo, the authority’s CEO.
Venetia Hands of Browns Hills in Orient, a leading pipeline foe and one of the meeting participants, said she finds that statement puzzling. Until the town completes its comprehensive plan and there is clear support from Orient residents for public water, “The authority should stay out,” she said. “It’s not clear to me why they are continuing to pursue that prior to gaining the public’s support.”
Mr. Gaughran said it also became clear that the town was unwilling to amend its water map, a guide to the areas where public water service is appropriate, to include the Orient peninsula.
“Taking them to court would only mean that if we won, it would be so late in the process that the stimulus money would be gone,” he said. “We were not going to do this without stimulus money.”
That is a departure from the authority’s previous position. On several occasions Steve Jones, until recently the water company’s CEO, had said the three-mile water main extension would proceed with or without either the stimulus funding or town approvals. At Mr. Jones’ retirement, the county named Mr. Szabo, a former deputy county executive, as CEO. Similarly, Mr. Gaughran, who previously served on the county legislature, replaced former chairman Mike LoGrande of Cutchogue, who also retired.
The congressman called the authority’s water main reversal “an embrace of reality.”
“I think the water authority is frustrated,” Mr. Bishop added. “They thought they had a good plan and federal money to support that plan. But they don’t want to be the governmental ogre forcing themselves on an unwilling town and an unwilling population.”
When the authority announced the project late last year, it said the purpose was to provide an alternative water source to the 24 homes in Orient’s Browns Hills area. The authority, which acquired that community’s small distribution system about 15 years ago, fitted each home with its own reverse osmosis system. Reverse osmosis purifies water, in this case tainted with high nitrates and other agricultural chemicals, by forcing the water through a membrane.
Supervisor Scott Russell said the Bishop meeting “resulted in a clear understanding that the Suffolk County Water Authority wants out of Browns Hills. That will work well with our plan to remove the authority from Browns Hills.”
Orient residents soon became suspicious of the authority’s intentions after hearing that the Browns Hills community had no interest in connecting to public mains. That suspicion grew when the SCWA later said the new pipes would provide service to about 100 homes along the route. Suspicion evolved into anger when the governor, in announcing the stimulus grant specifics, said the main could serve 700 residents, roughly all of Orient.
Residents and town officials argued that the availability of public water would lead to the development of large tracts of open land.
With the main extension no longer in play, the question now turns to the future of the Browns Hills system. Mr. Bishop said the meeting resulted in a “broad agreement” on two options. The 24 homeowners could take back the system and operate it on their own or abandon the system and drill separate wells or a cluster of wells.
“We’ve got a long way to go here and the next big step here is involving, in a constructive way, the Suffolk County department of health,” Mr. Bishop said. “I think we are on the right path.”
Mr. Gaughran said authority ratepayers now heavily subsidize the Browns Hills operation. While it costs about $120,000 a year to maintain the reverse osmosis units, the SCWA receives only about $18,000, he said.
“If we were to bill them the actual costs, they would go from $495 to as much as $4,950 a year,” the chairman said. “We have a right to do that, but we don’t want to do that. The town could probably deal a lot better with this. It’s logical. They very clearly want local control so they should take the local control and do it.”
Mr. Russell previously said the authority cannot simply walk away from its responsibilities for Browns Hills and that the agency was fully aware of the costs when it purchased the system.