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Amid drought watch, water authority asks East End residents to limit usage

The Suffolk County Water Authority on Tuesday declared a Stage 1 water emergency across the East End as demand soars during a particularly arid summer.

Officials held a press conference in Southampton to announce the designation, which was made to ensure a sufficient water supply for firefighting and other emergency purposes.

The emergency was issued for the towns of Southold, Shelter Island, Southampton and East Hampton, where customers are being asked to stop irrigating between midnight and 7 a.m., refrain from non-essential water usage and reduce shower times to conserve water.

“This is all about water infrastructure, our tanks and pumping capability being pushed to the limit pretty much every morning due to too many people setting their irrigation systems to activate in the early morning hours,” explained Tim Motz, a spokesperson for the authority.

Officials have cited concerns over the water supply for critical emergency situations like fires. An increased demand during peak hours can lead to depleted water tanks and insufficient water pressure, which can be dangerous in an emergency.

The request to stop irrigation from midnight to 7 a.m. comes just over a week after the authority asked customers to refrain from watering between the hours of 3 a.m. and 7 a.m., water on only odd or even days and consider using a smart sprinkler control to properly manage lawn watering.

A Stage 1 emergency hasn’t been declared since July 2016 and Mr. Motz noted that a Stage 2 emergency has never been issued. “If we did, it would be a call for the immediate cessation of lawn watering,” he said.

Though the SCWA alert does not technically include the towns of Riverhead and Hampton Bays, which maintain their own water districts, as well as those on private wells, residents across the county are being urged to be prudent about their water use due to the single source aquifer Long Islanders rely on.

Suffolk was one of 21 counties throughout the state placed on a drought watch list by Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office Friday.

The drought watch is triggered by the State Drought Index, which reflects precipitation levels, reservoir and lake levels, stream flow and groundwater levels.

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, 88.7% of Suffolk County is currently classified as “abnormally dry,” which can lead to stunted crop growth, elevated fire danger, brown lawns and wilted gardens.

“Recent rains across the state were not enough to address the dry conditions that have persisted this year,” Ms. Hochul said in a statement. “Local water restrictions and educating residents about how to help conserve our water resources will be crucial steps to help prevent a more severe shortage should conditions worsen.”

A watch is the first of four levels of state drought advisories that also warning, emergency and disaster.

Though no mandatory restrictions are in place under a drought watch, residents in impacted areas are asked to take steps to protect water resources by voluntarily reducing use.

The state recommends following these tips to conserve water:

• Water lawns only when necessary, choose watering methods that avoid waste, and water in the early morning to reduce evaporation and maximize soil hydration;

• Reuse water collected in rain barrels, dehumidifiers, or air conditioners to water plants;

• Raise lawn mower cutting heights. Longer grass is healthier with stronger roots and needs less water;

• Use a broom, not a hose, to clean driveways and sidewalks; and

• Fix leaking pipes, hoses, and faucets.

The National Weather Service outlook for the remainder of the summer predicts above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation. 

According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, observed precipitation has been less than normal with shortfalls of two to six inches common over the last 90 days. Groundwater levels have also faced a decline and are not currently predicted to improve due to prolonged dry conditions.

According to Mr. Motz, the East End is where the system faces the most intense pressure and said the agency is reaching out to customers via mass phone calls, emails and texts. “We’re reaching out one-on-one to the 1,000 biggest users to urge them to cut usage and to tell them how to do so,” he said. “We’ll be monitoring the situation closely to see if further actions are warranted and focusing on getting people to voluntarily take the measures that are needed to make sure everyone has enough water pressure and that it is sufficient to address the needs of firefighters and other emergency workers.”

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