Long Island’s Drinking Water - Challenges and Solutions

Over the last few years, a groundwater pollution Superfund site in my community has generated concern among local residents; that much I'm sure of.

What I'm less clear of is to what extent this danger – the dry-cleaning fluid tetrachloroethylene has contaminated groundwater in a nearby well field (which comes with a hefty price tag for treatment) – has reignited people’s interest in the role they have in protecting their local water supply.

The “local” supply, in this case, is the Long Island aquifer system, designated “sole source” by the U.S. EPA. “It’s our only source of drinking water,” says Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, in a new video produced by GRACE. “One hundred percent of our drinking water comes from directly underneath our feet.”

That means Long Islanders should take special care of this life-sustaining resource. There isn’t an alternative supply and the region’s geography has a lot to do with that, says Esposito: “The beauty of Long Island is that we are an island. The challenge of Long Island is we are an island.”

Esposito, whose organization for decades has promoted greater awareness of local water resources, explains that our actions on the land have grave implications for the quality of our drinking water “underneath our feet.” Pesticides, fertilizers and failing septic systems are just a few sources of pollution.

“High levels of nitrogen – associated with residential septic tanks and cesspools and fertilizer runoff from agricultural lands – in the groundwater has led to the degradation of local drinking water supplies as well as Long Island’s coastal ecosystems,” according to Christopher Gobler, a professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

What can be done to improve the quality of – and better protect – Long Island’s water supply? Watch the video to find out. Okay, here’s one of the bigger solutions, if not the biggest: Long Island needs a new management structure and it needs it now.

Contributing to Long Island’s water quality woes, and an issue touched upon in the video, is the fragmented state of management and oversight of the local water supply. Nancy Rauch Douzinas, president of the Rauch Foundation, says it best in a recent viewpoint about the tremendous benefits of a potential merger between a local water district and a neighboring water authority:

This makes obvious sense. And it points up what doesn’t make sense: having a single aquifer system tapped by 60-plus local water suppliers, and managed and monitored by a dizzying array of federal, state, and local agencies.

That structure is rooted in history, not logic. It’s inefficient, and worse, it’s risky. With water management so fragmented, we're essentially left with no one in charge of it. No one ensuring its long-term viability.

The result? Our water quality is declining fast…

It’s time to recognize water quality as an urgent threat that we must not ignore. We need to act now to establish a comprehensive, [island-wide] water protection plan, and the management structure to make it work.

Ron Busciolano, Supervisory Hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey New York Water Science Center, hits upon what is at stake when he speaks to the two primary reasons the USGS – which remains policy-neutral and only supplies the data and advice needed to make wise management decisions – takes such great interest in Long Island’s groundwater supply: 1 ) the health and well-being of about 2.8 million people on Long Island, and 2 ) the continued economic development for the region, both of which are tied to a clean, plentiful source of groundwater supply.

All Long Island communities, including mine, must take a greater interest in their local water supply. Consider this video a first step towards engaging Long Islanders about this unique aquifer system and providing ideas about how they can be better stewards of this vital resource.

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AUTHOR'S NOTE:

Long Island groundwater levels were recently featured in the winning design by Richard Vijgen in the World Water Day competition by HeadsUP! and Visualizing.org which has been on display in NYC’s Times Square for the past month. Titled “Seasonal and Longterm Changes in Groundwater Levels,” Vijgen’s design uses NASA’s gravitational data.

As conveyed in Participant Media’s powerful new documentary, Last Call at the Oasis, communities across the US and around the world are confronted by complex challenges facing their respective local water supplies.

Responses to "Long Island’s Drinking Water - Challenges and Solutions"

  1. Circle of Blue

    Also check out Circle of Blue’s article from January 2011 on coal tar in the state of New York... we made an interactive Google Map that includes information on all clean-up sites listed by the state’s DEQ! http://www.circleofblue.org/waternews/2011/world/water-pollution-solution%E2%80%94new-york-experiments-with-coal-tar-sponges-in-hudson-river/

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