Home Opinion Suffolk Closeup Our sole-source aquifer is not a limitless resource

Our sole-source aquifer is not a limitless resource

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Suffolk County government has, at long last, embraced the “advanced” wastewater treatment systems that remove substantial amounts of nitrogen that leaches out of traditional cesspools and has raised havoc with the groundwater and also surface waters, causing brown tide, red tide and otherwise triggering eutrophication.

This is a “water quality” issue, notes environmentalist John Turner, who says Kevin McAllister, founding president of the organization Defend H20 “deserves much credit for fighting” to get “advanced” wastewater systems accepted by Suffolk government. “During the early years, he was truly ‘a voice in the wilderness.’”

Now not only are these technological breakthroughs in wastewater treatment fully accepted by the Suffolk Department of Health Services, the county executive’s office and the Suffolk Legislature, but local governments are joining with the county in financial programs to assist in the installation of the systems.

Also of prime importance for Suffolk County, indeed for all of Long Island, says Turner, is “water quantity.” With the Seatuck Environmental Association, where he is conservation policy advocate, he has been leading a campaign to get action on this. He is also former head of Brookhaven Town’s Department of Environmental Protection and a foremost Long Island naturalist, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A seasonal guide to nature on Long Island.”

There now is movement on the water quantity issue — making Turner very happy. Earlier this month, a new entity — the LINAP Water Resource Work Group—had its first meeting. (LINAP stands for Long Island Nitrogen Acton Plan.) Held at the Suffolk County Water Authority Education Center, it is being chaired by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and includes representatives of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, The Nature Conservancy, health departments of Nassau and Suffolk, U.S. Geological Survey, Long Island Farm Bureau, Town of Riverhead sewage treatment facility, the office of Suffolk Legislator Al Krupski of Cutchogue, the Suffolk County Water Authority and, of course, Seatuck.

Put simply: Long Island sits in the sea, between the Atlantic Ocean, bays, and the Long Island Sound, with its sole source of potable water in the aquifers below, an underground water table — our reservoir. There is an interface between the fresh water of this natural reservoir and salt water that surrounds us. Lowering the level of fresh water in the underground water table can — and has — resulted in saltwater intrusion and loss of potable water and the lowering and drying up of streams, rivers and lakes.

Salt water intrusion is a large part of how Brooklyn and Queens on the western portion of Long Island (because they’re parts of New York City, often ridiculously not considered “Long Island”) lost their potable water supply years ago. They now must rely on the system of manmade reservoirs and pipes to bring water down from upstate.

Or as Turner explains: “There’s the water we don’t see — the fresh water beneath our feet, stored in the sandy aquifers that underlie Long Island. This layered system of water-saturated sand, silt, gravel and clay sits atop a basement of bedrock…that slants to the southeast and contains no water. In the middle of Suffolk County, the aquifers, replenished only by rain and snowmelt, are about 1,000 feet deep, while they are shallower in Nassau County.

“These tiered sets of aquifers—the groundwater reservoir—is our drinking water supply and the sole source for meeting all our water needs…

“Near the coast, the oozing water from the aquifers is what supplies the base flow of streams and rivers, while in the middle part of the island the fresh water moves vertically, recharging the groundwater system before eventually turning sideways and discharging into the saltwater that surrounds the island…

“Imagine the groundwater reservoir to be a balloon of a certain size and due to pumping of water and coastal discharge of the wastewater the size of the balloon lessens. Some significant things happen.

“First, as the water table drops, the top of the balloon, the surface water bodies such as streams, lakes and rivers either dry up or are significantly diminished …

“Second, the salty water surrounding the island pushes landward in a process known as saltwater intrusion, contaminating the edges of the aquifer.

“If we continue on the path were on, the patient will get sicker…”

Next week: How all over Long Island sewage treatment plants, including the ones in
Greenport and Riverhead, are discharging wastewater into bays, rivers, the ocean and Long Island Sound— reducing the quantity of our ground water.

Karl Grossman
Karl is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Karl lives in Sag Harbor. Email Karl