SCWA’s 2023 Southold groundbreaking was ‘ceremonial’

A Suffolk County Water Authority capital project to build an eight-mile, $35 million pipeline linking the Pine Barrens aquifer to Southold Town is not yet underway, and will take three to five years to complete, SCWA CEO Jeffrey Szabo said in an interview this week.

Mr. Szabo was responding to a letter to the editor published recently in The Suffolk Times from Laurel resident David Levy.

In his letter, Mr. Levy said he saw no indication that any work had been done in the full year following the project groundbreaking, which the water authority now acknowledges was merely “ceremonial.” During that year, Mr. Levy wrote, a section of Peconic Bay Boulevard was dug up and a pipe was laid underground “because someone wanted a photo op,” 

The project, which water authority officials said last spring would be completed by 2030, will be spread out over three to five years to minimize disruption and will begin after the completion of an environmental impact study, which is currently underway, and a determination of the optimal route, Mr. Szabo said.

“There’s no rush. It’s a longstanding issue that we think needs to be addressed,” he said. “We’re proud that we’re addressing it. And whether it takes three years or five years, I’m not putting pressure on ourselves to get it done quickly.”

As for Mr. Levy’s complaint that last year’s groundbreaking was “fake,” Mr. Szabo acknowledged that the event was “ceremonial.”

“Our previous chairman [Patrick Halpin] believed in this project. He was on the board for 17 years. He’s no longer on the board,” Mr. Szabo said. “He was our chairman for the last four years and very passionate about this project. And he very much wanted to initiate a ceremonial kickoff. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

In a press release issued last spring to promote the groundbreaking, SCWA described the pipeline as the “North Fork Halpin Transmission Line.”

The groundbreaking was paid for out of the SCWA’s capital budget and the work was done by a contractor, Roadwork Construction, according to an agency spokesperson.

Mr. Szabo said officials have yet to determine the best route for the pipeline — and that in the weeks ahead he will send out a letter to local elected officials and community leaders to “share where we are” on the project.

“We’re planning to have full scoping sessions,” he said. “We want to hear from everybody.”

The water piped into the North Fork from the pine barrens will allow SCWA to reduce reliance on area wells impacted by saltwater intrusion. The project is also expected to reduce future capital outlays for the construction of new well fields in the area.

Mr. Szabo went on to say that SCWA is still determining the best of “three main routes that head from west to east” for the pipeline.

“We’re going to want to hear from folks, we want to hear from the community,” he said. “We’re going in open-minded and I think that’s probably the best, or the only, way to do it to be successful.”

SCWA first presented the plan for the new main to the Southold Town Board in November 2022 and applied for project grants a month later, though Mr. Szabo said that funding has yet to be secured.

“We typically invest millions of dollars a year in our capital program,” he said. “Our annual capital budget is anywhere from $85 million to $110 million. This $35 million project — it’s certainly a big step, the biggest single capital project we’ve had in our history.

“We have applied for, and we will again seek, federal and state funds to reduce the cost. So this won’t take away from any of our typical normal capital work that we do. This will be done and sort of incorporated into that,” he said.

“We are doing all the proper steps,” Mr. Szabo added. “If we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, don’t think any worse of us.”