In addition to its agriculture, its bayside beaches and its vineyards, there’s something else that makes the North Fork unique: its shallow supply of fresh water, floating in “bubbles” underground, just above a layer of seawater.
But as more and more wells are dug into the aquifers beneath the earth, local authorities are warning residents and businesses that they need to start conserving this “public resource.”
“This, by far, is one of the most sensitive areas on the island,” said Tyrand Fuller, lead hydrogeologist for the Suffolk County Water Authority.
At a public forum at Southold Town Hall Tuesday night, SCWA representatives, county Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) and members of the Town Board all spoke about the importance of protecting the North Fork’s fresh water supply.
As of September, the North Fork remains under a drought watch, which the state Department of Environmental Conservation declared in July for the first time in 14 years. Since then, the lack of rain has only gotten worse, according to the National Weather Service.
Every month since February, rainfall totals have been lower than normal, according to NWS data collected from the agency’s nearest weather station in Islip. For the year to date, precipitation is down by nearly 8.9 inches compared to the average. That follows an especially dry year last year as well, when precipitation totals were 7.64 inches below normal.
This past summer was also especially dry, with just 5.25 inches of rain, ranking it the fourth driest summer dating back to when record keeping at Islip began in 1984.
“More often it’s been negative [rainfalls],” said NWS meteorologist John Murray at Upton. “It’s below normal.”
The lack of rain is affecting groundwater reserves, he said. Numerous wells tested across Suffolk County are running “below normal” to “much below normal,” Mr. Murray added.
Streams are also flowing weakly, he said. Biologists with Stony Brook University said that slower-moving streams are partially to blame for the growth of dangerous blue-green algae in the Peconic River for the first time this summer.
Mr. Murray said it takes weeks for groundwater to react to rainfall, or the lack thereof.
But even a sudden burst of rain wouldn’t help matters, he said. That’s because the dry ground won’t be able to soak up all the water, causing flooding.
“Anytime you get heavy rain — a large amount of rain in a short amount of time — the ground doesn’t have time to absorb it all, and you get more runoff,” he said. “The rapid accumulation of water … is going to be really bad.”
Instead, Long Island needs to see steady light rain that occurs throughout the day over a few days each week. That will start to recover the rain deficit in a meaningful way, Mr. Murray said.
The water authority, which serves 8,650 customers in Southold Town, issued a water alert earlier this summer requesting that customers keep non-essential water use to a minimum.
More than two dozen people attended the meeting at Town Hall, where Mr. Fuller explained why the North Fork should be especially concerned.
The water authority oversees the distribution of water from local aquifers to residents and businesses not on private well systems.
Unlike other parts of Long Island, where freshwater aquifers extend deeper underground, the North Fork’s water “bubbles” float closer to the surface. Since fresh water is less dense, it stays separated from the salt water below, Mr. Fuller said.
But this setup makes the situation precarious, he cautioned. If too much water is drawn from the aquifer, the bubble could shrink and salt water could begin to seep into the 131 SCWA wells across the North Fork, as well as private water wells.
The average homeowner in Suffolk County uses about 160,000 gallons of water each year, Mr. Fuller said. But some users, mainly businesses and large residential complexes, can use millions of gallons a year, he added.
The water authority is offering customers credits of up to $50 to cover the cost of water-efficiency tools like new shower heads, faucets or rain sensors, Mr. Fuller said. The efficiency upgrades also lead, he said, to “large savings” on residents’ water bills.
Mr. Fuller said the water authority plans to install a 2-million-gallon storage tank on its property at Laurel Lake, which he said will remain at ground level and won’t be visible from outside the property. The water authority is also in discussions about adding another storage tank in Cutchogue.
Several audience members asked whether the water authority could regulate and penalize users who waste water. Mr. Fuller replied that the water authority had looked into setting a fee for overuse, but he admitted that it lacks the authorization to regulate its users. That would have to come from legislators at the state level, he said.
Mr. Fuller said the water authority was trying to work with local farmers — most of whom operate on closed private well systems — to determine how much they’re using the aquifer. SCWA representatives said it’s not intended as a “competition” over water, but rather to get a better understanding of how much the public resource is being used.
“We need to work together,” Mr. Fuller said.
Mr. Krupski said a recent public hearing on water quality held in Hauppauge lasted hours, proving the importance of the issue. At Tuesday’s meeting, he said he’ll seek to bring a similar public hearing to the East End, so local residents can also have their say.
Mr. Krupski credited a 2005 town wetlands law with helping to recapture some runoff on the North Fork and return it to the aquifer; a later 2008 law expanding a townwide drainage code was also key, he added.
“Everyone’s been focusing on this for years,” Mr. Krupski said.
The SCWA held a similar forum in Southampton last month and plans to keep the discussion going in the years to come, according to CEO Jeffrey Szabo.
“This isn’t a meeting that happens once,” he said. “This is an important dialogue.”
Supervisor Scott Russell said the town has been considering adopting restrictions on water usage, saying it is important to protect the supply of fresh water below ground.
“We view it as a public resource,” he said.
While residents have been urged to take conservation steps, a summary of the 25 top water users in Southold Town and Greenport Village is dominated by businesses and commercial ventures.
According to documentation provided by the SCWA and the Village of Greenport, the top two water usage accounts both belong to Peconic Landing in Greenport, as one might expect. Over the past year, dating back to last August, Peconic Landing led all other users by a wide margin, with combined usage of 12.7 million gallons of water.
However, those totals were the accumulation of all usages at Peconic Landing’s 144-acre campus, including care and rehab facilities, kitchens, community centers and — most significantly — its 339 residents.
“We are in the business of caring for people, and doing that safely does require a certain amount of water usage,” said Bob Syron, president and CEO of Peconic Landing. “We are committed to using our environmental resources responsibly because [the North Fork] is not only the place where we work, it is the place where many of us live and raise families.”
According to Mr. Syron, much of the campus is disconnected from irrigation to save water, and areas that are irrigated have special sensors that turn off the sprinklers during rainstorms.
Inside the residences, nearly 200 showerheads have been swapped out for more efficient models and the community’s latest expansion, which opened in April, has applied for a Gold-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.
Mr. Syron said the new construction uses 20 percent less water than similar apartment homes at the facility. Other efforts to improve water quality and conservation include the use of environmentally friendly cleaners and detergents when requested by residents and limiting pesticide and fertilizer use.
Mr. Syron said Peconic Landing also works closely with the SCWA to limit its impact.
“Many years – most recently in summer 2015 – we have shut down irrigation during times of drought,” he said. “They give us a call, and we are quick to respond.”
Like Peconic Landing, the remaining five biggest users might not surprise you, given the nature of their businesses. They include Eastern Long Island Hospital, which consumed a total of 5.16 million gallons across two water accounts; Mattituck Laundry; San Simeon By the Sound; the Cliffside Resorts condominium complex; and Mattituck Plaza shopping center, according to the data.
The residential property that used the most water was a 3.1-acre beachfront lot near Nassau Point Road occupied by two houses, a small dock and a pond. That property’s account, according to SCWA data, used more than 1.63 million gallons of water in the last year, more than two other top-25 users, Bedell Cellars and North Fork Country Club.
Among those top 25 water users, just four are residences, water authority data shows.
A property in New Suffolk is the next-highest water consumer, with nearly 1.5 million gallons used last year, and a sprawling residence on a private road in Mattituck, which includes a private tennis court, is third on the list with about 1.42 million gallons used, according to the data.
The final highest residential user is another waterfront New Suffolk property that used about 1.32 million gallons of water, according to SCWA figures.
Photo credit: Grant Parpan