SCWA proposes rate hike for Orient

The Suffolk County Water Authority has proposed tripling the rate it charges 24 Orient homeowners to maintain their in-home water treatment systems.

The utility company, which claims it costs roughly $120,000 per year to provide reverse osmosis filter systems to the 24 houses in Browns Hills, has proposed increasing its maintenance fees from $495 per year to $1,500. The well water tapped to serve Browns Hills contains high levels of nitrates originating in agricultural chemicals. The community sold its private water distribution system to SCWA 13 years ago.

Tim Hopkins, SCWA legal counsel, said last week that the hearing will likely be held in September, but the date has not yet been established because the water authority wants to reach out to Orient residents to ensure that they can attend.

Browns Hills resident Venetia Hands, who has attended many meetings with the water authority, said this week that she was relieved it was not proposing to raise the fees to $4,000, as it had initially proposed.

“That’s good news, but it’s extremely high. I believe it is very questionable,” she said. “Their figures say they spend $120,000 per year on the Browns Hills system but $50,000 of that is an internal SCWA charge. They would be spending it whether they spent it on us or not.”

Ms. Hands said that the Browns Hills system has been in place since the early 1950s, when homeowners could not afford the sophisticated technology needed to dig wells in the rocky ground beneath their houses. They drilled a collective well under a nearby farm field and spent $150,000 upgrading the well in the 1990s, before the Suffolk County health department insisted that they spend another $150,000 on a nitrate filtration system. The community decided instead to sell the system to the Suffolk County Water Authority for $1.

“They knew exactly what they were buying. They bought it because they wanted to go into all of Orient,” Ms. Hands said. “Maybe they made a bad decision, but they live with it. At this stage, Browns Hills would prefer to go onto its own wells if we can do that but the Suffolk County Department of Health is dead set against that.”

At least one industry professional agrees that Browns Hills residents will be paying too much for the water if the rate increase is approved.

Representatives from GNS Mermaid Water Systems in Mattituck, which installs the systems for the water authority, declined to comment on the proposed rate hike. But Tom Demopoulos, manager of the Purewater division of Kreiger Well and Pump Corp. in Mattituck, said that the water authority’s current $500 maintenance charge “would be about right if they were serviced twice a year.”

Mr. Demopoulos said that the $1,500 figure was ridiculous.

“Where are they getting that number from? It might be right if they go there once a month,” he said. “The need to service them that often is not true.”

Mr. Demopoulos said that he had installed one reverse osmosis system in that neighborhood seven years ago and was surprised to see that it was still working well, without maintenance, when he recently serviced it for the first time.

Meanwhile, the water authority is biding its time while the Southold Town Trustees mull over its application for a wetland permit that would allow it to drill the new water main along the Route 25 roadbed. The trustees will not discuss the application again until their next meeting August 18.

The trustees granted an administrative permit last July for the water authority to put 400 feet of the pipeline beneath Dam Pond. That permit is good for two years. The town subsequently declared that the authority must reapply for a more conclusive permit.

The water authority has maintained in legal correspondence as recently as this June that it is simply applying for the second permit in the spirit of cooperation with the community, despite the utility’s position that the trustees may not have jurisdiction over controversial plans to run a new three-mile service main.

Just a few weeks ago Congressman Tim Bishop and authority representatives said the main project was dead. But the utility did not withdraw its application to the trustees and, in fact, declared it could be ready to begin work on the new pipeline by Labor Day.

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