Editorial: Water conservation bill must be approved

Last September, public officials urged North Fork residents to cut back on water usage, as a severe drought was underway. 

Earlier that month, the Suffolk County Water Authority, in declaring a Stage 1 water emergency, had asked residents of the East End towns to stop all irrigation between midnight and 7 a.m., reduce shower times and refrain from all nonessential water use.

At a Southold Town Board work session that month, Supervisor Scott Russell made it clear: the water authority “has been ringing the alarm bell” about drought conditions and water usage. He urged town residents to take it seriously.

The water authority’s warning was also clear on this: The county maintains a limited number of wells, and when demand exceeds capacity — as during a drought — water pressures drop along with storage capacities, leading to the risk of a water shortage during an emergency.

County officials urged residents to cut back on irrigating their lawns and pointed out that, on the East End, wells are smaller and the strain placed on them in the summer — when the population increases — is great. Throw in drought conditions and it’s easy to understand the concern of county and town officials across the region.

Newsday recently reported that the “epicenter of the escalating battle to curb water consumption can be found on the East End.” The story said that 70% of all water usage across the region goes to lawn watering. It went on to say that the county’s top residential water users were located on Meadow Lane in Southampton — “on a street nicknamed Billionaire Lane.”

Jump ahead to this summer. Legislator Al Krupski (D-Peconic) has introduced a bill in the Suffolk County Legislature that would require homeowners with in-ground irrigation to equip their systems with rain gauges. Most in-ground systems are on timers that go on automatically at certain times on certain days — even when it’s raining or rained heavily the day before.

The North Fork has to get way smarter on water usage, which, of course, meshes with larger issues such as development vs. preservation. Groundwater supplies are limited; droughts like last year’s will certainly happen again. How can we be better prepared? These are the questions Mr. Krupski is asking with his bill.

We spoke to Mr. Krupski on Monday. “Today, I was in Riverhead when we got all that rain,” he said, adding that about three-fourths of an inch fell on parts of the North Fork in a short amount of time.

“It’s puzzling to see automatic sprinkler systems running when it’s raining,” he said. “At the very least, these systems need rain gauges on them that would allow them to shut off automatically.”

Mr. Krupski’s bill, if passed by the full Legislature, would exempt our farmers from these restrictions. That is a very good move, and we would be remiss if we didn’t point out that some farmers — we are thinking of Tom Wickham in Cutchogue — have already fully converted to more efficient drip systems to irrigate plants and crops.

“Agriculture is exempt because when you are farming, you don’t want to burn diesel gas to run your irrigation if there’s been rain and you don’t have to,” Mr. Krupski said. “It’s too expensive. Tom in Cutchogue has won conservation awards because of his work on soil and water conservation. He is being responsible.”

A public hearing on Mr. Krupski’s bill is scheduled for Sept. 6. He said the wording in the bill can change on the issue of whether all new irrigation systems will be required to include rain gauges and whether that requirement will, over time, be extended to mandate retrofitting of older systems as well.

“We don’t know when the next drought is coming or the next heavy rain,” he said. “But we really do have to think about water usage. We don’t know what the future holds.”

Mr. Krupski is right. We on the North Fork must protect what we have — our land, our salt creeks and bay, and our groundwater supply. Our only way forward is preservation.