A tale of two towns explains the saga of drinking water on the North Fork. To borrow from the Dickens classic of “A Tale of Two Cities,” there really is a “far, far better thing” than all of us in Riverhead and Southold could be doing than we “have ever done” with our drinking water supply. Both private and commercial water use is getting out of hand, and it is catching up with all of us.
We can start with the Town of Riverhead, whose water district tells us they pumped 3.037 billion gallons last year for 11,700 customers. The problem then, as this year, is from May through September, when 90 percent of water pumped is used for irrigation.
Some will hear this and blame the farmers, but guess what? Residential use of water per acre is far more intense (so too with pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer use, but that’s for another discussion). Eighty percent is for home irrigation for lawns and landscaping. While average use of water for personal needs reaches 100 gallons per day per person, it climbs to a daily 450 gallons/person during the May-September timeframe. It goes into the thousands of gallons per day when we understand our “water footprint.” For several days this past July, pumpage clocked in at an astounding daily rate of 20 million gallons in Riverhead, virtually all for watering lawns.
The Riverhead water district seems under considerable strain, reporting on their website that their town-wide water service has, for the last five years, operated at a fiscal deficit of $320,000. Owing to the enormous increase in the use of automatic irrigation systems here, and the ever so popular, pre-dawn timeframe when they are turned on, the entire town system suffers a low-pressure issue. This in turn seriously impacts fire safety for everyone. It also strains water district equipment and water quality with saltwater intrusion into underground freshwater resources. And it has triggered current proposals in town hall to add/replace water pumping and storage facilities to the tune of $10 million (a figure that is a sure bet for hefty cost overruns).
For both Southold and Riverhead towns, no one has a clear number of how many private wells exist in homes that draw their own water from underground. The Suffolk County Department of Health Services numbers these at 50,000 county-wide. For Southold Town and Greenport Village, the Suffolk County Water Authority operates their public water facilities, with 8,650 public water customers. Southold as well endures the same home irrigation craze in the same pre-dawn hours, and the same low pressure and fire safety issues and excessive strain on equipment. Even all the customers of the water authority county-wide, in their own, pre-dawn, summer lawn-watering zeal, raises the water authority’s pumpage to rise from 200,000 to 540,000 gallons PER MINUTE.
As if expense and risk are not enough, this manic lawn-watering tale of two towns has yet another sordid feature: waste – blatant, rampant and shameless waste. Cornell Cooperative Extension tells us that a deep root system is key to a healthy lawn, achieved with occasional (maximum three-times-per-week) watering, about one inch/week. But no – far too many home lawn systems run excessively every day, early each morning. And take a look at the home sprinklers pumping away during rain, and in blazing, evaporating sunshine, filling the streets with streams and even small floods after saturating storm drains, while blissfully oblivious homeowners drive with a splash out of driveways to start their day.
Consider the old saying, “We have seen the enemy, and they are us!” We ought to be ever so conscious of a reduced water footprint just as with our carbon footprint. Enlightening guidance for this can be found at the Grace Foundation website: gracelinks.org (log onto their Water Footprint Calculator – fascinating).
It’s time to seize upon a reality – we are stewards of a precious resource that has to be managed, available and affordable. The time is now for all of us to wake up, to take some simple steps that can make a huge difference, according to both the Riverhead and Suffolk Water Authority officials, and common sense:
– End the predawn trauma for our water facilities – set the time of your irrigation system to operate from 9 p.m. to midnight, at most every other day.
– Install an inexpensive rain sensor, to shut down your sprinkling system when it rains.
– Explore drip irrigation, which is far more efficient and saves water by a whopping 80 percent;
– Use you street address number and the calendar date: when they correspond as odd or even, that’s your watering day, but that’s only if your lawn needs irrigation more than three days per week, WHICH IT DOES NOT!
While you”re at it, insulate hot water pipes to make hot water come faster, drop a water-filled plastic bottle in the toilet tank to curtail per-flush usage, only run washing machines and dishwashers with full loads, repair anything that leaks in the slightest, even turn water off whenever not in actual use during personal hygiene. Many more hints can be found at www.epa.gov/watersense. When it comes to our fragile water supply, taking these steps will certainly be “a far, far better thing we do than we have ever.”
Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.
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Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect a correction in the volume of water pumped by Riverhead Water District in 2015.